Zimbabwe prisons in the spot light

But just how bad conditions have become within prison walls, while the economy collapses without, is only beginning to come to light.

A documentary to be screened on South African state SABC television on Tuesday evening shows emaciated prisoners teetering at death’s door for lack of food and medication.

The documentary, which is based on secret footage obtained by officials and prisoners, also tells of how relatives coming to collect their loved ones’ remains are forced to rummage through mounds of dead bodies.

The Zimbabwean Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO) estimates that at least 20 prisoners die each day in the country’s 55 prisons.

According to Edison Chiota, ZACRO national director, most die of HIV/AIDS or associated diseases such as tuberculosis, which thrive in unhygienic conditions.

Hanging by a thread

The incidence of pellagra, a skin disease caused by malnutrition that can cause serious psychological problems and even death, has also soared.

Cholera, on the other hand, a diarrhoeal disease that has killed over 4 000 Zimbabweans since last autumn, had been brought under control in prisons "to a certain extent", he said.

In the SABC documentary, entitled Hell Hole, 28-year-old Brighton Mudadi’s life is shown to be hanging by a thread.

Mudadi, who is serving an 18-month sentence for robbery in the southern Beitbridge prison, has tuberculosis and is severely malnourished. His rib cage protrudes through his matchstick frame as a fellow prisoner helps him wash himself and the soiled pants he is wearing.

Accounts from three prisons revealed most prisoners receive only one fist-sized portion of maize porridge a day, with no meat and little to no vegetables.

Many rely on family for food supplements. But in a country where over half the population – around 7 million – can no longer feed itself, some families have nothing to spare.

"The truth is there is not any food in the prisons at the moment and there is no medication to cope with the diseases," said ZARCO’s Chiota.

Bodies piling up in back rooks

Ex-prisoners talk of excrement seeping out of blocked toilets and of uncollected bodies piling up in back rooms because families can no longer afford to bury their dead.

Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa admitted in parliament that the hardship afflicting the country was "hitting hardest inside prisons" and appealed for assistance.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it and other agencies were in talks with government about the situation.

While many prisoners have complained of overcrowding, ZARCO backed up Chinamasa’s contention that the prison population had fallen to around 14 000, below the capacity of 17 000, following an amnesty last year.

The fate of the remaining prisoners, and the fate of the population generally, is seen as hinging on the West’s largesse.

The country’s new power-sharing government is beseeching Western donors and lending agencies for billions of dollars of aid to address the country’s food and health crises and kick-start the economy.

But Mugabe’s continued tight rein on power has made his critics balk at committing significant funding toward the country.