By Veronica Gwaze and Prince Mushawevato
Government is in a dilemma as it tries to find a quick solution to decongest local prisons that are now overcrowded, thereby creating all sorts of challenges.
Previously, the State has tried to reduce the country’s prison population through the Presidential amnesty that has seen thousands of inmates being freed annually.
According to the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, at least 5 000 prisoners are set to gain freedom this year following completion of paperwork under the amnesty programme.
However, the scheme is apparently failing to solve the current prison pickle, a fact that Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi publicly acknowledged in Parliament late last year.
“. . . so we realised that giving pardons is not the solution to overcrowding in prisons as the population increases within a month after prisoners are released,” noted Minister Ziyambi.
Some of the pardoned prisoners fail to re-integrate into society, thus they find themselves back in the prison days or weeks after release.
In 2016, 130 out of 2 000 freed prisoners went back to jail less than four months after release, while 24 inmates out of the over 4 000 released in 2018 went back behind behind bars less than two weeks after being pardoned.
The prison population boom has created potential health hazards for inmates. For instance, prisoners are currently faced with possible food and water shortages, inadequate clothing as well as the potential transmission of communicable diseases.
Furthermore, ablution facilities are constantly stretched as they are not designed to cater for the large population.
The situation is worrisome.
There are prisoners suffering from chronic illness, with some of the cases being HIV related. The Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) is reportedly struggling to provide the necessary medical care due to high demand.
The challenges emanate mostly from the fact that funding coming through Treasury and donors is proving to be insufficient.
Statistics show that by December 2019, the country’s 46 correctional facilities held about 20 698 prisoners against the maximum holding capacity of 17 000.
The figure was a 1 000 increase compared to 2018 when it was last recorded at around 19 500. In 2016, the number of prisoners stood at 18 001.
The ballooning of the figures has been ongoing for the past five or so years.
Secretary in the Justice Ministry, Mrs Virginia Mabhiza confirmed this in an interview with this publication.
“The high numbers obviously mean a strain on the financial plan because we budget for the maximum capacity, which therefore means we have nothing for the excess numbers.
“We are simply saying the budget is no longer sufficient to cater for our inmates so we are doing whatever we can to make sure we provide at least something for them,” she said.
Mrs Mabhiza, however, applauded the ZPCS for making efforts to ensure they source supplies from various organisations and stakeholders to curb the situation.
The ever rising backlog of yet to be finalised cases within the courts, due to a sharp rise in crime, worsens the situation.
Besides, the correctional facilities now need to be upgraded in line with the ever growing general population.
Most of the facilities were created during the colonial era and just after independence when the population was still much lesser.
Mrs Mabhiza said a raft of measures are being implemented to address the overcrowding predicament. She noted the need to invest in new prison facilities across the country and increasing the number of open prisons.
According to online sources, an open prison is any jail in which the prisoners are trusted to serve their sentences with minimal supervision and perimeter security, and are often not locked up in their prison cells.
Under the plan, prisoners may be permitted to take up employment while serving their sentence.
“Our prisons are way overpopulated, they are exceeding the carrying capacity, hence the need to come up with de-congesting measures.
“We have tried the Presidential amnesty but we are now working on having more open prisons throughout the country. In an effort to decongest, we have already finished our paperwork in which 5 000 are set to benefit from the Presidential amnesty,” revealed Mrs Mabhiza.
She was, however, quick to point out that lack of funds is adversely affecting them.
Plans are already afoot to set up a female open prison in Marondera following a ground breaking ceremony that was conducted late last year.
Renowned social commentator Dr Rebecca Chisamba is an advocate of the creation of an open prison for female inmates with children.
“We are still in the process of mobilising funds from Treasury and other sources. There are plans to construct additional facilities while other existing prisons are to be renovated or restored. Tropical Cyclone Idai also destroyed some of our facilities, thereby further creating challenges,” she added.
The creation of children’s correctional facilities across the country has been cited as another solution.
Equally, juveniles under 10 years are set to enjoy court and jail immunity as Zimbabwe is currently reviewing the age of criminal responsibility so as to afford more rights to minors under a broad framework of the Child Justice Bill.
“Minors should be housed in different sections from adults, especially in remand. Equally, the ministry is engaging the judiciary for a downward review of bail charges. Some people are detained for failing to pay bail,” explained Mrs Mabhiza.
Scenarios of hundreds of toddlers doing time in prison because of their parents have also contributed to prison overcrowding.
There is no budget to cater for the minors and they depend on paltry shares of food rations meant for their mothers.
The improvement of the justice system, by opening more courts, means more cases and subsequently more convictions are now being carried out on a daily basis. The Sunday Mail