The Provincial Magistrate responsible for Matabeleland North province, John Masimba, said 50 inmates were paroled on medical grounds last year.
The released prisoners were visibly ill and had sores all over their bodies, showing severe signs of malnutrition. The release of prisoners comes hard on the heels on horrifying footage from the country’s prisons and showed emaciated inmates succumbing to starvation and disease in the overcrowded jails.
Human rights activists and former prisoners have spoken of horrifying conditions in the jails but there had been little first hand evidence available.
Producer Godknows Nare, spent four months filming the behind-the-walls documentary. His film titled "Hell Hole" was aired on SABC, the South African state broadcaster twice in the last two weeks.
Nare said he hoped the footage would persuade Zimbabwe’s new coalition government and the international community to step in.
"Hearsay without visual proof, is not enough to change people’s minds," he said.
In one scene from "Hell Hole," a man stands shirtless in a prison yard, his ribs and pelvic bone shockingly prominent until he pulls on a ragged T-shirt.
In other scenes, emaciated prisoners, wasting away because of vitamin deficiencies, are shown lying on mats in cells furnished with just blankets and thin mattresses.
Nare said prison menus had been reduced to daily bowls of corn porridge, which the inmates are shown eating slowly, as if they barely have the energy to bring the food to their mouths.
However, Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa last week dismissed as “false” the SABC TV3 Special Assignment documentary which aired horrifying footage.
In an interview with RadioVOP last Wednesday, Chinamasa accused the SABC team of fabricating the story.
“What was shown by the SABC3 is not true,” said Chinamasa. “The SABC is lying. We do not allow cameras into our prisons. We have made investigations and found out that the footage is not from Zimbabwe but other countries,” he said.
“The pictures shown are not from Zimbabwe prisons but elsewhere in Africa and these are being attributed to us. We know our prisons are facing challenges but that documentary was false. Also it is unethical for the SABC to show such pictures of foreign prisoners and attribute them to Zimbabwe. I want to re-state that no-one is allowed inside our prisons with cameras,” he said.
The government however went on to arrest three prison officers suspected of smuggling in investigative reporters from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)’s special assignment programme into Beitbridge Prison last Friday.
In October last year the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO) released a report indicating that there were 55 prisons in Zimbabwe, with ae capacity to hold 17 000 inmates. But in October 2008 it was estimated that more than 35 000 people were in jail.