I LIKE to keep my word, so when I promise to do something, I try to deliver. While I was running for Harare City Council Ward 7 seat during the July 2018 general elections, I learnt that Ward 7 includes the military barracks, police and prisons next to Enterprise Road in Highlands.
If a candidate wants to win the Ward 7 in the local elections, they need get the uniformed officers to back them, but it is very hard to meet them. It was during my campaign efforts that I met the top brass in the Zimbabwe prison service, whom I found to be incredibly professional and I was told in no uncertain terms that the prison system is non-partisan.
However, despite the fact that I made no political inroads, the officers brought to my attention the plight of the female inmates at Chikurubi Women’s Prison who needed sanitary products and a few of them had babies with them who needed diapers as well. I was invited to visit the prison and I immediately offered to find the needed supplies for the inmates.
That was several months ago and we had scheduling challenges, so I did not get an opportunity to visit the prison until now. I had visited a friend in Chikurubi Prison many years ago after she was arrested for embezzling money from an elderly client’s account at the bank where she worked. I vaguely remembered it as not being like that Hollywood TV series, Prison Break.
Then I did business with Hazel Shuro, who makes Mazuva Sanitary Pads, which are washable and reusable sanitary pads and I thought they would be perfect for the women in prison, so I placed an order for a 100 pads and requested to visit Chikurubi Women’s Prison to donate them.
I also set up a social media campaign to collect women’s clothes, books, babies’ clothes and toys, which got a great response. I was impressed by the generosity of Zimbabweans when I started receiving goods for the inmates. I went through my wardrobe, selecting clothes, shoes, videos and books to give them.
I used to run an African fashion business and I still have a lot of fabrics so I packed several for the women to sew. Not everyone appreciated my good intentions. Since I was asking for donations on my old campaign WhatsApp group, someone accused me of not going through the proper channels by consulting the councillor for Ward 9, Stewart Mutizwa, under which Chikurubi falls.
Quite frankly, I thought Chikurubi was outside Harare, so I told them the councillor could join me if he wanted. I had been put in touch with the prison’s public relations team to officiate on my visit and the person I was referred to had requested that I pick them up from their office at the Justice Ministry on my way to Chikurubi.
I also brought along Hazel Shuro and my assistant to join me. We needed two cars with the boots of both cars filled to the hilt with items that I had collected for the women. When we arrived at Chikurubi, we found senior members of Zimbabwe prisons and the Chikurubi correctional service officers waiting for us.
The councillor for Ward 9 had called while we were on our way and joined us a bit later, but prisons protocol requires that outsiders need to get prior clearance before they visit the prisons, so he was not allowed to enter.
Chikurubi Women’s Prison is a class 3 prison, which means it is high security but not maximum security. Zimbabwe had four classes of prisons from 1 to 4, with 4 being maximum security. There were 127 inmates when I went to visit with eight babies present, while a few others were out.
They have a crèche just outside. The babies go to a normal crèche during weekdays like other kids.
I had been a bit apprehensive about the visit, but things seemed pretty normal. The first thing I observed was some women braiding each other’s hair and there was lots of friendly chatter between the correctional officers and the inmates. Our delegation was taken into the main enclosure where all the female inmates were waiting with their babies and they burst into songs to welcome us. It was a very sweet reception and, at some point, I ended up joining in the dancing.
The inmates either wore a green gown to show that they had not been sentenced yet and there were a few of them wearing yellow gowns indicating that they had been sentenced. There were a few speeches from the prisons officers then Shuro gave a talk to demonstrate the use of the reusable sanitary pad. After that I began distributing the gifts and, when I brought out the toys, the kids ran eagerly to get them. I noticed only one white woman at the back and was later told that she was a Venezuelan who had been arrested for smuggling and there was a Congolese woman who I later learnt was arrested for being an illegal immigrant.
There were a few mental patients in there and I was pleased to hear that the prison service has hired a psychiatrist who will be starting work soon. When I brought out the fabrics, one woman who is a tailor and teaches sewing to the other inmates, ran forward happily to collect them.
Chikurubi Women’s prison tries to teach the inmates vocational skills, including sewing so they require tools and equipment so the inmates can learn a trade that will help them after their release. The focus of the Zimbabwe prison system is on rehabilitating prisoners, not incarceration.
In fact, there is a family atmosphere I found there, with prisoners calling the prison official their father. I was impressed by the care that the Zimbabwe prisons staff show towards the welfare of the inmates, in spite of public scepticism. The visit was an eye-opener for me and, the following day, I called the wardens to ask them exactly what they needed for me to continue to helping.
The inmates need basic commodities like cooking oil and soap. I will buy what I can and deliver to the prisons office at the Justice Ministry. Chikurubi Prison is far out of Harare, with a very bad road leading up to it so it will be easier if I continue to collect supplies for the inmates and deliver them to the Zimbabwe prisons office in town.
It is important that we all become aware that we can help in several ways. The prisons service prefers donations of goods, not cash. Apparently, Zimbabwe has over 17 000 men in the prison system and only 127 women, with numbers changing every week, because women generally do not commit violent crimes.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa pardoned all female prisoners and released them after he won the July elections, but a week later, many of them were back. The sad reality is that in these difficult economic conditions, some women choose to get a roof over their heads and their meals provided by being in prison.
Female convicts are also at a disadvantage compared to male convicts in that spouses and families are more likely to abandon women who are sent to prison, whereas when men are incarcerated, their wives continue to visit and not give up on them. I set out to find out what support ex-convicts get in Zimbabwe upon their release.
I spoke to Emmanuel Gasa from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called The Arts and Aids Foundation (Taaf), who said they try to include ex-convicts in their arts festivals to teach them how to earn a living.
Then I spoke to former corrections officer Cleopas Zvaita, who is a member of the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (Zacro), an NGO which was founded in 1968 to prevent crime by rehabilitating former prisoners into mainstream society.
Zvaita has worked in prisons all over Zimbabwe. He explained on many issues which helped to demystify the prison system to me. He clearly has good intentions. Zacro is a great advocate for prisoners, but there are other NGOs which make their living by standing for prisoners’ rights. Some of them reacted in a territorial fashion when they heard about my drive for donations for women prisoners.
Someone accused me of doing things incorrectly, but ultimately I made a group of women and children at Chikurubi happy, but I do not intend to make a career out of this. There are several churches and organisations also doing great work in prison outreach programmes, but I did not have time to connect with all of them.
Taking care of our prison population should be a national effort and everyone should get involved. I have had many Zimbabweans asking how they can help, so anyone can drop off their donations at the Justice Ministry with the prisons’ public relations team. Their email address is: email@example.com or I can put you in touch with them.
Deborah Peters, business and investment consultant. — Twitter: @debbienpeters/ e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.