“I saw at least three bodies a day being taken out,” said former inmate Roy Bennett, 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 said he was given an excrement-soiled uniform when he arrived at Chikurubi with the crotch of the shorts torn out. He said that the situation of his fellow prisoners was infinitely worse.
Torture in prisons is common, Bennett 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, a leading human rights lawyer, said that once someone has been arrested anything can 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 prison for armed robbery. He told IWPR. “I slept on cold dusty floors for the six years I was at Chikurubi.” 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 who recently visited the country’s 42 prisons say they were designed for 16,000 but house more than 25,000. They reported cooking pots and other kitchen equipment so filthy they were “not fit to carry food for human consumption”.
A report by Zimbabwe’s independent Institute of Correctional and Security Studies estimates that 52% 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%. 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.
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 dealing 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 Zimbabwe’s short but sharply cold winter.
“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). Sympathetic prison officers chipped in and donated what they could because there are no provisions for babies 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.” – IWPR
BY DZIKAMAI CHIDYAUSIKE
HARARE - 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 lik