By Fanuel Jongwe
The Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare is crumbling at the seams, assailed by overcrowding and a critical shortage of medicines, food and other basics as the economically-crippled country battles to care for its inmates.
Convicts and wardens alike bemoan packed cells where running water is erratic and shortages of food, clothes and bedding prevail.
Basic painkillers and antibiotics are impossible to come by, meaning prisoners risk dying from easily-treatable conditions.
“We don’t have drugs for… ailments like pneumonia and meningitis. We need a functioning X-ray machine. As of now, our machine is down and yet this is a basic tool required for diagnosis,” Blessing Dhoropa, a doctor at the prison hospital, said as lawmakers visited Chikurubi last week.
AFP correspondents saw prisoners wearing threadbare uniforms in the prison’s male and female sections.
Inside the cells, paint flaked off some walls and for bedding, prisoners had thin blankets on bare cement floors.
One complained the cells were infested with lice and other vermin.
Such conditions are common in Zimbabwe’s 46 prisons. They were built to collectively incarcerate 14,000 prisoners, but hold more than 20,000 today.
Chikurubi’s men’s section houses 2,508 inmates instead of the 1,360 it was designed for.
“Our population is much higher than we should hold,” conceded Senior Assistant Commissioner Alvord Gapare, who oversees jails in the Harare province.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) has condemned such “deplorable” conditions which it said “exposes inmates to illnesses and psychological trauma.”
In 2013, the body said, more than 100 prisoners died of malnutrition-related illnesses.
At Chikurubi, donors provide life-saving anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs for inmates who need it.
“I am HIV positive. Drugs for HIV are available. But other medicines, antibiotics… even the painkiller paracetamol, are not there,” 18-year-old prisoner Chiedza Chiwashira told members of parliament’s child welfare and justice committee on a fact-finding mission.
Another inmate complained there was “no medicine for epilepsy.”
And according to Gapare, Chikurubi’s only ambulance “is down”.
At Chikurubi, prisoners grumble about the staple diet of maize porridge without salt or sugar for breakfast, followed by the same, served with boiled kale, cabbage or beans, for lunch and dinner.
“Our diet is not suitable for people with ailments like diabetes and hypertension,” an inmate of the female section told the official visitors.
Gapare conceded the prison food has little nutritional value.
“We have challenges preparing the food that’s suitable for our prisoners. We cannot follow the dietary scale that we should follow. We serve mostly beans and vegetables,” he said.
In a bid to decongest the country’s jails, President Emmerson Mnangagwa granted amnesty to at least 3,000 prisoners in March last year.
But overcrowding persists as Zimbabwe’s convicts, like the general population, suffer the consequences of a moribund economy that has been in ruins since hyperinflation peaked at 500 billion percent and wiped out savings under former president Robert Mugabe.
Zimbabwe is undergoing another bout of price rises and shortages of fuel and daily essentials. Inflation is at more than 75 percent, putting basic goods beyond the reach of many.
The government is struggling to provide relief for citizens, let alone the prison population.
And the harshness of daily life continues feeding Zimbabwe’s already over-full prisons as many turn to crime to survive.
“Most of the patients are not supposed to be here,” Chikurubi’s deputy director for health services and a consultant psychiatrist, Patrick Mhaka told the lawmakers.
“Some are said to have stolen a loaf of bread and they end up here.”
Lawmaker Daniel Molokela asked prisoners and officials to draw up a list of needs, which he said the government would examine.