In Zimbabwe even a short prison sentence could mean death

HARARE, – Zimbabwe's prison walls have not insulated inmates from the effects of the country's economic meltdown. A recent report has warned that the nation's 55 prisons have become "death traps", with conditions deteriorating rapidly and diseases spreading even faster.

The Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO), a prisoners’ rights group, said jails were in a "deplorable state".

Israel Chamboko, 30, (not his real name) from Highfield, a low-income suburb in Harare, the capital, spent three years in Chikurubi maximum security prison on the outskirts of Harare for car radio theft. He has vowed never to go back.

Generally, life was unbearable; we hardly had enough food to eat, not enough water, our cells were hot, dingy and smelly in summer and extremely cold in winter," he said.

"If you told the guards you were sick they would laugh in your face and say, ‘criminals deserve to die’. They didn’t care if you were HIV positive, or you were diabetic, or that you had any of these chronic illnesses. We were all just criminals with no rights."

The ZACRO report said water cuts were frequent, while sanitation often consisted of one bucket in the corner of a cell occupied by a number of inmates, and another bucket with water for washing and drinking.

Findings also revealed that the country’s 55 prisons including satellites, with a capacity of around 17 000, were holding over 35,000 inmates. Overcrowding and the unhygienic conditions were also contributing to the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) and cholera.

Pellagra, a deficiency disease, was also common. It is caused by a lack of vitamin B3 and trypophan, an essential amino acid found in meat, poultry, fish and eggs, all foodstuffs no longer available in jails.

The lack of condom distribution in prisons has also exacerbated the spread of HIV/AIDS. Prison authorities refuse to provide condoms to inmates in the belief that it will encourage homosexuality, which is illegal in Zimbabwe.

HIV positive prisoners

In a country with one of the highest prevalence rates in the world, prisons have not been spared the effects of the pandemic. ZACRO’s information officer, Wonder Chakanyuka, said at least 10,000 people in prisons were living with HIV/AIDS, but their needs were being neglected.

Although antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) were available, the treatment was not accompanied by proper nutrition. Inmates in most prisons were surviving on just two meals a day, and at least two prisoners died every day as a result of hunger and disease.

"The main problem is that nutritious food is not available, which is necessary to boost immunity of inmates affected by the pandemic. The shortage of food in most prisons remains a scenario undermining disease mitigation programmes in the prisons."

HIV-positive inmates also do not have access to drugs to treat opportunistic infections. ZACRO found that because of the shortage of drugs, prisoners were obliged to buy their own medicines through their relatives, but the escalating cost of medicines meant many families could barely afford this extra expense.

Sebastian Chinhaire of the Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS said HIV-positive inmates suffered the double tragedy of being stigmatised because of their positive status and being labelled criminals.

"People in prisons have rights like us that should be protected and respected. The justice system in Zimbabwe is such that people want to throw away the keys after locking someone up; society simply forgets about them."

Acting spokeswoman for the Zimbabwe Prison Services (ZPS) Granitia Musango said the prison service was doing the best it could in light of the economic meltdown in the country.

"The Zimbabwe Prison Services’ mandate is to ensure all prisoners are treated with respect and dignity while in prison … However, it must be noted that the Zimbabwe Prison Services, like any other government institution, has not been spared by the economic crisis."