As Covid-19 cases rise in Zimbabwe, there are major risks to the country’s prisons and detention centers. These facilities are often unsanitary, overcrowded, and have no running water in cells for detainees to comply with hygiene practices recommended to stem the spread of the disease. According to the Ministry of Health, as of July 28, Zimbabwe had 2,817 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 40 deaths. And the situation in the country’s prisons and jails could get much worse.
Many detainees, like anti-corruption activists Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume, are stuck in congested pretrial detention facilities. Others are arbitrarily detained for simply speaking out or otherwise exercising their rights. In March, the government acknowledged that Zimbabwe’s prisons, with a capacity for 17,000, had a population of 22,000. Between March and June 2020, the government released 4,208 prisoners under President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s amnesty order, but too many remain behind bars to allow for social distancing.
Three lawyers who visited prisons in Harare last week told me that although masks are issued at prisons, many inmates and some wardens do not use them partly due to lack of information on protecting against Covid-19. They confirmed that at least three staff at Prison Headquarters and the Chikurubi officers’ camp had tested positive for Covid-19.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) states that prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care available in the community. Zimbabwean authorities should take immediate steps to provide detainees with adequate medical care and facilities to protect them from Covid-19. Zimbabwe should consider increased reduction of the prison population through supervised or early release of low-risk detainees including those up for release soon, those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, or whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or unjustified. The government should publicly disclose plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in its facilities and steps it will take to contain infection and protect prisoners, staff, and visitors.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, established under the Constitution to, among other things, carry out monitoring and inspection visits to prisons and other places of detention, should intervene to inspect and monitor compliance with Covid-19 measures to protect the health of detainees.