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Hopewell Chin’ono: I knew then that I was entering a horror prison

By Hopewell Chin’ono

The evening when I walked into Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison as part of my punishment by Mnangagwa’s regime for exposing the looting of Covid-19 public funds, I was met by a nurse who was honest and straight with me.

Joanah Mamombe is one of the three youth leaders who were admitted after allegedly being abducted and beaten up by police and eventually dumped along the roadside (Picture by JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP)
Joanah Mamombe is one of the three youth leaders who were admitted after allegedly being abducted and beaten up by police and eventually dumped along the roadside (Picture by JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP)

“….we don’t even have paracetamol tablets in this prison,” she said to both Jacob Ngarivhume and myself after I had asked about the drug situation at the prison.

I knew then that I was entering a horror prison which was not able to take care of our basic health needs, or any unforeseen medical eventualities.

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The very least that a prison could have done was to have basic medicines, but not at Chikurubi.

These are the nightmare realities that not only Zimbabweans at home encounter in Zimbabwe’s public hospitals, but even prisoners in Zimbabwe’s most feared prison, Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and across the prison service.

Two nights later after my arrival around 2AM, I heard so much noise coming from an adjacent prison cell, there was wailing and banging of the prison cell wire-metal gate.

Prisoners were pleading for prison officers to come immediately as one of the prison inmates was seriously ill.

30 minutes later, I heard prison officers coming up the stairs accompanied by the hospital staff, the sick prisoner was given nothing, because there was nothing to give! Welcome to Chikurubi!

Prisoners are dying at Chikurubi prison without any sense of urgency to addressing the health delivery crisis at the prison, the top officials don’t care, and they lie about it too!

I regularly saw sick prisoners lying on the ground in pain with no medical assistance, not because the nurses were unwilling to help, but because they had nothing to help the sick prisoners with.

I was terrified of COVID-19 after realizing that the prison had such a broken-down and dysfunctional health delivery facility, one that was just there in name and not practice.

My personal physician, Dr Nyasha Maboreke, came to see me 3 or 4 times during my time of persecution.

He was shocked that the prison couldn’t even give him a High Blood Pressure (HBP) machine so that he could check my HBP levels.

This machine costs US$5 online for a basic one, yet the biggest prison in Zimbabwe where directors are driving Landcruisers and expensive twin-cabs didn’t have one in its prison hospital when needed.

The number of prisoners testing positive to COVID-19 were going up whilst I was at Chikurubi, yet these prisoners testing positive were simply isolated for 6 days and given warm water as a medical remedy, nothing more!

I asked one of the friendly nurses why this was the case, “…inga you always write about it wani nhai Hopewell,” she said with a wry smile.

“Looting, huori ndowauraya hurumende,” she said emphatically, then moved on after raising her hands into the air as a sign of giving up.

In Jacob Ngarivhume’s prison cell-section alone, 6 prisoners tested positive to the deadly virus in one day.

Getting sick at Chikurubi is a scary thought for the prisoners and should be scarier for anyone with a relative inside that dungeon prison!

The prison hospital is a dysfunctional facility without the required basic medicines, or just human dignity expected of any such medical facility looking after 2600 men and women.

A mental health patient was killed by another mental health prisoner, whilst the other prisoners watched in fear in the mental health section of the prison in August.

“What happened,” I asked one of the friendly and thoughtful prison officers.

“There was no medication to give the “killer” prisoner, so he simply acted out his paranoia and killed his fellow inmate whilst everyone else watched,” the prison officer said to me with a sad expression on his face.

There are mentally ill prisoners who have been waiting for assessment, and yet it hasn’t been done for years because the assessment board that sits to assess these prisoners hasn’t sat for over two years according to a social worker that I spoke to at the prison.

The social worker told me that some of the mentally ill prisoners spent years in the prison facility for a crime as small as stealing a loaf of bread or insulting someone.

All this suffering for these mentally ill prisoners simply because of a failure to convene the mental health board to assess the prisoners.

The prisoner’s deaths are unceremonious and degrading, but life goes on without the outside world knowing about this tragic reality inside Chikurubi.

The State tragically relies on propaganda, lying about the situation inside the prison, and I saw this firsthand!

When I was at Chikurubi, almost ALL prisoners didn’t have COVID-19 masks, no soap to wash their hands, no running water in their cells where they spent 17 hours of each day locked-up.

When Jacob Ngarivhume, Job Sikhala and I made noise about the issue of masks, the prison knew that our noises would soon be making their way into our court arguments.

They brought a ZBC camera, wheeled out a group of about 20 prisoners who were made to sing whilst wearing masks in front of the ZBC camera, and the story that evening on ZBC was that ALL prisoners at Chikurubi had masks.

The truth is that almost ALL prisoners at Chikurubi prison didn’t have masks right up to the day I left prison on the second of September.

The prison doctor even participated in this deceitful charade to hoodwink the nation into believing that every prisoner had a mask, when almost all of them didn’t have one.

“You should all make sure that you don’t remove your masks,” said Dr Evidence Gaka dishonestly in front of the camera knowing very well that there were no masks to be removed.

When the prisoners tried to protest through questions in front of the camera, Dr Gaka who is also the Zimbabwe Prisons medical doctor was gone.

The failure to provide masks is a direct result of the LOOTING of public funds meant for COVID-19 consumables that I had reported about in May, June and July of this year.

I was arrested and abused as punishment for making these corruption exposures, although the State comically charged me with incitement of public violence!

Four days before I was finally given bail by High court judge Justice Tawanda Chitapi, I requested through my legal team for my personal doctor to come and see me.

I was feeling extremely unwell and I was not eating.

I had a terrible fever, weak joints, a mild headache and a lack of appetite.

It was a Sunday afternoon when Dr Maboreke came to see me on August the 30th.

Dr Maboreke did physical tests and said that I was exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, so he did 2 COVID-19 tests.

He wrote a letter to the prison service asking them to make sure that I didn’t go to court for my routine remand on Tuesday, until my Covid-19 test results were back.

He told the prison boss that this was very important because if I was COVID-19 positive, I could spread the virus in the truck that takes us to court, and also in court.

We were packed like sardines in that green truck, there was no social distancing as required by World Health Organization regulations, which were adopted by Zimbabwe.

Breathing alone was difficult, we would be sweating due to the lack of proper ventilation, and by the time we got to the next destination, prisoners would be drenched in sweat.

The next day on Monday, my fellow prison cellmate, the member of parliament for St Marys, Job Sikhala and some sympathetic prison officers told the media that I was unwell.

The news spread quickly online; the prison service chose to ignore Dr Maboreke’s medical instructions and advice in pursuit of cheap propaganda points.

They wanted to tell the world that I was WELL as opposed to what had been correctly reported in the media both home and abroad that I was ill.

The State propaganda newspaper, The Herald, ran an article titled; “Chin’ono not seriously ill, says ZPCS.” See: https://www.herald.co.zw/chinono-not-seriously-ill-says-zpcs

The prison hospital had no help to give me at all, no medication, not even a paracetamol tablet.

Tuesday morning on September the 1st, I was threatened with physical violence by prison officials if I refused to go to court, I pleaded with the prison officers, explaining that I was not supposed to go to court on medical grounds and instruction.

The prison officials went down to the prison courtyard and ordered 8 hefty prison officers to come to my prison cell, my cellmates who understood the ruthless use of violence against prisoners asked me to comply.

I went downstairs where there was a prison doctor, a Dr Dhoroba, who didn’t even ask how I felt or bothered to examine me.

He simply asked me to comply with the prison officers demands, and disregarded Dr Maboreke’s medical instructions and advice which were in the letter right in front of him.

This was unethical, but the prison doctors are indeed unethical, they follow political orders disregarding medical requirements.

I was shocked by Dr Dhoroba’s behavior, but more was to come from this prison doctor.

I was forced into the prison truck which took me to Harare Magistrates court.

When I got into court with my legal team, the issue of forcing me to come to court against medical advice was raised by my lawyer, Advocate Taona Nyamakura.

The public prosecutor tendai Shonhai asked for an adjournment so that she could check with the prison service and the prison doctor, Dr Dhoroba.

When she came back, she delivered a pack of lies that had been given to her by Dr Dhoroba.

He lied to the prosecutor that I was fine and that I was feeling much better than I was on Sunday, yet he had not examined me on that Tuesday, and was not there when Dr Maboreke examined me on Sunday afternoon on August the 30th.

He lied that I routinely refused to cooperate with the prison hospital, yet when Dr Maboreke came to see me on ALL occasions, he did so with the assistance of a nurse from the prison service and recorded each visit into the prison hospital patient book.

Dr Dhoroba lied that my temperature was better, yet he had not checked it.

This is a prison doctor, a doctor playing Russian roulette with not only my life, but the lives of other prisoners since I exhibited COVID-19 symptoms!

Three prisoners out of 12 tests from my prison cell tested positive to COVID-19 that week alone.

Chin’ono not a danger to other prisoners bellowed the State propaganda The Herald newspaper the next day. See: https://www.herald.co.zw/chinono-not-a-risk-to-inmates/

Dr Dhoroba is probably the same doctor, at the same prison that will be looking after the member of parliament for Harare West, Joana Mamombe, who is struggling with a mental illness disorder after being abducted, tortured and sexually abused!

He will probably be asked for his advice, your guess is as good as mine.

Prisoners struggling with mental illness disorders are also mixed in the same cells with other prisoners, raising the prospects of violence to other prisoners who do not have mental illness disorders.

If you have a relative serving time at Chikurubi prison, please do check on them, the difference between not feeling well and meeting their maker could be a very short space of time.

Jacob Ngarivhume and I were supposed to be at Harare Remand Prison, but because of the vindictiveness of the regime, we were taken to Chikurubi after Nelson Chamisa paid us a visit.

For that visit, we were not only subjected to a health hazard, but we were always in leg irons and handcuffs each time we left our prison section.

I am pained by those that I left behind, they deserve a better prison with a better health care facility.

“Don’t forget about our plight mukoma Hope,” said one of my cellmates as I left to go home.

I will never forget about their plight.

Hopewell Chin’ono is an award-winning journalist, Documentary Filmmaker and CNN Africa Journalist of the year.

He was imprisoned at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison without trial after exposing massive Covid-19 looting scandals that included President Mnangagwa’s allies.

The corruption exposures resulted in the former health minister Obadiah Moyo being fired.

Chin’ono is a Harvard University Nieman Journalism Fellow and a University of Oxford Africa Leadership Fellow.