Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Outrage at Zimbabwe Prison Squalor

Malnutrition, disease and overcrowding await those doing time in the country’s failing penal system.
By Dzikamai Chidyausike
Inmates of Zimbabwe's prisons are suffering appalling levels of chronic illness and high mortality rates.

Packed into squalid and overcrowded cells, the majority of those in the prison system are HIV positive, with many suffering from AIDS-related illnesses like tuberculosis.

Malnutrition worsens the plight of those who are already sick.

"I saw at least three bodies a day being taken out,” said former inmate Roy Bennett, an opposition parliamentary deputy who was imprisoned in Harare's notorious Chikurubi prison for eight months after he shoved Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa on the floor of parliament. "The poverty in the prisons is terrible. Sometimes food is only a cup of porridge, with no sugar or salt, served in the morning.

"The prison guards plunder the oil, sugar, salt and other goods meant for prisoners because they are too poorly paid to survive."

Bennett - whose farm had been confiscated and his workers killed and raped before the attack on Chinamasa - said he was given an excrement-soiled uniform when he arrived at Chikurubi with the crotch of the shorts torn out so that he had no personal privacy or dignity.

But he said that the situation of others was infinitely worse, saying the average age of his fellow prisoners was between 20 and 25 and that they were serving long sentences for comparatively petty offences like stealing a chicken or groundnuts in a country with acute food shortages. Bennett was released earlier this year.

"Ninety per cent of the young prisoners never receive visitors," he said. "Their parents cannot afford the bus fares to visit them."

Torture is also common. Bennett said he saw people crippled by beatings on the soles of their feet, "If you are too slow in sitting down or squatting – because you can't talk to the guards standing up, you have to grovel on the floor to talk to them – you are beaten."

Beatrice Mtetwa, the country's leading human rights lawyer, said that once someone has been arrested anything could happen. "You can get beaten up. You can be tortured," she said in an interview with the Public Broadcasting Service of the United States. "It's just so dehumanising. It's not enough that you've been put in custody. They really, really want to break your spirit."

Nixon Gandanzara, 42, developed tuberculosis while in Chikurubi serving six years for armed robbery. "I began coughing while in prison," Gandanzara told IWPR. "I slept on cold dusty floors for the six years I was at Chikurubi."

He said he shared a cell measuring three-square metres with 33 others. A hole in the floor served as the communal toilet. It was flushed only intermittently because the flush handle was outside the cell. Guards wanting to impose punishment would refuse to flush it.

A parliamentary committee whose members recently visited the country's 42 prisons say they were designed for 16,000 but currently house more than 25,000. The committee reported cooking pots and other kitchen equipment so filthy they were "not fit to carry food for human consumption". Toilets and other sanitation facilities were in urgent need of repair, and they said prisoners must go for weeks without soap or toilet paper.

"Some inmates have resorted to using pages ripped from Bibles to wipe themselves clean," the report said.

Gandanzara said prisoners were permitted to wash their fraying uniforms only twice a month, while they were able to clean their lice-infested blankets even more rarely.

He has had chest pains and a persistent cough since he was released in June, and doctors have advised him to take an HIV test since TB is an opportunistic infection that sometimes takes hold as a result of AIDS.

A report by Zimbabwe's independent Institute of Correctional and Security Studies estimates that 52 per cent of the country's prisoners are HIV-positive. However, Blessing Mukumba, a doctor who works with former prisoners in Harare, said he believed the true HIV infection rate of released prisoners is nearer 60 per cent. Detainees are denied condoms, though homosexual activity is widespread in prison.

While no figures are available for AIDS deaths, prison authorities host a daily five-minute programme on state radio appealing to relatives to collect the bodies of their loved ones. Gandanzara estimates that a dozen men died of the disease in his cell during his stay at Chikurubi.

Many who do make it out bring the HIV virus and other serious illnesses with them back into society - a virtual death sentence because of the country's catastrophic economic decline and endemic corruption.

Zimbabwe’s economic crisis also means that women with small children who are sent to prison often have no choice other than to bring their children with them.

The Zimbabwe Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation, an NGO that deals with the welfare of prisoners, estimates there are more than 300 children in the country's prisons, the majority who are less than two-years-old.

The prisons department's budget does not cater for the hundreds of children also doing time, and they have to share their mothers' own paltry rations. That includes a breakfast of maize porridge, an early afternoon meal of more maize with a boiled vegetable. Meat and beans are given only on national holidays.

The babies cuddle together with their mothers beneath one blanket on concrete floors - even in the depths of southern Africa's short but sharply cold winter, with night temperatures dipping below zero

Programme officer Charles Mudehwe from the Zimbabwe Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation told IWPR, "It's shocking that children under the age of two could be living in prisons with their mothers. The conditions are dangerous to say the least. The quality of food is not suitable for children."

"I had no clothes for my baby," Thenjiwe Ncube, the mother of a three-week-old child in Mlondolozi Prison, near Bulwayao, told workers with the Prison Fellowship of Zimbabwe, PFZ, the local chapter of an international Christian alliance for rehabilitating and assisting inmates. Sympathetic prison officers chipped in and donated what they could because there are no provisions to provide baby clothes at the prison.

Prison regulations stipulate that children must be released into the custody of relatives or the Department of Social Welfare once they reach the age of two. But PFZ administrator Emmanuel Nyakasikana said, "The extended family concept is dead as people struggle to obtain the basic necessities." He added that social welfare homes were stretched beyond limits by the influx of tens of thousands of children orphaned by AIDS.

Justice Minister Chinamasa has dismissed all international and national concerns about Zimbabwe's prison conditions. "Prison by its nature is not supposed to be a cosy place," he said. "It should not in any way bear resemblance to a hotel. These places should at least teach offenders that committing a crime can burn their fingers.”

Dzikamai Chidyausike is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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