By Henry Matewu
HARARE – Chikurubi Prison, Zimbabwe’s maximum security jail, located about 15 kilometers east of the country’s capital Harare, is amongst the country’s 40 jails accommodating an estimated 17,000 prisoners in total.
Dreaded for poor sanitary conditions, Chikurubi has other prison cells measuring 9 metres by 4 metres, accommodating as many as 25 prisoners in each cell, spending much of their time locked up.
And these are the prison walls behind which 34-year-old Ressy Chikwaka (not her real name) is serving a decade-long jail sentence for attempted murder. A visit by this reporter at this Southern African nation’s maximum jail was met with stern-looking guards.
“In the D section, in which people like me live in crowded conditions, often we woke up to seeing some of our cellmates dead mostly due to starvation; we are made to take out stinking corpses by prison guards; it’s scary,” Chikwaka recounted.
“We use one pit latrine toilet in this section of the female prison,” added Chikwaka.
“At night, which is from 4pm to 6am when we are locked up in our cells, we use two litre plastic containers, which we cut to use as toilets and later dump in the latrine toilet,” said Chikwaka, adding that they were also without sanitary wear.
But it is only about 200 days into the life of this Southern African nation’s new government led by President Robert Mugabe, which has a raft of written measures to improve people’s lives here.
Sister-in-charge at Chikurubi Female Prison Theodora Chadzingwa dismissed the claims of sanitary wear shortages.
“We have adequate sanitary supplies for every female prisoner here from donors,” Chadzingwa said.
But a prison official who spoke to this reporter on the condition of anonymity at Chikurubi maximum jail said: “Donors bring soap and lotions here, but they hardly reach prison inmates as they are pilfered midway; inmates now rely on toiletries brought by visitors, but not everyone gets visitors.”
Chikurubi, like many other prisons in Zimbabwe, has also been rocked by starvation, with unaccounted prison inmates succumbing to malnutrition-related ailments.
For Kerina Dehwa, a former prisoner who spent more than a year at Chikurubi Female Prison, starvation was the order of the day.
Dehwa was among 29 members of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) party arrested in 2011 on accusations of murdering a senior police officer.
“We became emaciated with starvation during our incarceration at Chikurubhi and with MDC now out of government, I see hunger worsening in jails,” said the MDC-T activist.
Analysts say Zimbabwe’s prison conditions are a harbinger of worse things to come.
“This is a reminder of the 2008 scenario when similar conditions rocked jails here and it means we are sliding back into the 2008 rot,” independent political analyst, Gibson Nyikadzino, said.
And Zimbabwe’s Justice Ministry last year revealed that at least 100 inmates died owing to poor nutrition out of the country’s total prisoners of 17, 000.
The country’s Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs secretary, Virginia Mabhiza last year told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs the country’s prison inmates also needed clothing.
Meanwhile, human rights defenders here say Zimbabwe’s prison inmates are a forgotten lot.
“Being a prisoner here is hard because really you suffer often without food, without sanitary wear for women and even without care from responsible authorities and you will wonder at the reason of keeping prisoners in jails when they don’t get the basics of life,” said Rita Nyamupinga, director for the Female Prisoners Support Trust, a civic organisation fighting for the rights of female prisoners in Zimbabwe.
For other former female prisoners like Tendai Chivenje (not her real name) who served a two-year jail term at Zimbabwe’s Chikurubi maximum jail, she dreads life behind bars, vowing never to commit a crime again.
“During my imprisonment, we were about 92 of us sleeping on the floor with our feet converging at the center of the room,” said Chivenje, who was convicted of theft in 2009, adding that such overcrowding in jails led to many prison inmates contracting diseases.
Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister, Emerson Mnangagwa has however refuted claims of the country’s deteriorating prison conditions.
“Nobody has died of hunger in our prisons; we have challenges of food, but we are being assisted by the Grain Marketing Board,” Mnangagwa said.
But GMB has over the years run into grain shortages, with Zimbabwean farmers resisting to sell their grains to it, citing unattractive prices offered by the parastatal.
In the 2014 national budget announcement, Zimbabwe’s Prisons and Correctional Services Department was allocated USD 2, 5 million although it initially required USD 21 million in this year’s budget.
According to the Zimbabwe Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO), an average of 20 prisoners were dying daily in 2009 due to malnutrition ailments.
Then ZACRO and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2009 moved in to provide additional food and water to prison inmates, later cutting aid in 2011, citing improvements in Zimbabwe’s food situation, with ZACRO saying it had run out of resources.
In its 2011 report after visiting five jails here, Zimbabwe’s parliamentary committee on human rights noted that lack of toiletries, ablution facilities and the unavailability of water for a long time at some prisons were disturbing and that prisoners’ diets needed improvements.