HARARE – I entered the small library which is used as a classroom. There were about four or five inmates gathered around a desk.
One of the inmates was said to be their teacher.
She said she was reading for a Master’s in Business Administration.
After being introduced to the women, I asked for their level of education and the first one to answer was a pint-sized woman sporting cornrows on her head.
“I am now doing Grade Five,” the woman, who judging by her appearance, is in her mid-20s, said proudly with her infectious smile betraying that she was gratified by her achievements.
I was later informed that when she first came to the prison, she could neither read nor write.
My heart went out to her upon learning she was a good student.
The young woman in question was in prison for sexually abusing a minor and her sentence will end in December this year.
A 36-year-old Harare woman who was convicted for stock theft and will be released in February said she now realised that crime does not pay, so she lhad earnt to rear chickens as well as hairdressing.
“When I leave prison next month, I will start by plaiting people’s hair so that I can raise money for my chicken project. I know that with these two projects my family will never go hungry,” she said.
Another young lady confessed that when she was arrested she could not sew, but after the skills training received at Chikurubi, she could sew anything from uniforms to suits.
Director of Prisoners’ Support Trust (Femprist) Rita Nyamupinga, whose organisation offers rehabilitation, counselling and mediation to ex-convicts, said the skills training from the prison service went a long way in the rehabilitation process.
She said her organisation, which also provides the ex-convicts with basic groceries like toiletries, sugar, tea, cooking oil, kapenta and mealie meal assisted the women to start up income-generation projects.
“We are very happy about the skills training in prison. We take their jewellery, paper baskets and poultry produce and sell it for them.
We not only assist them to market their wares but sometimes we assist them to go into colleges such as those which offer bridging courses for those who have gone up to O’Level. We actually have one girl who has five O’levels but she is afraid of looking for a job because of her criminal record,” Nyamupinga said.
However, the skills and life lessons learnt at the correctional institution do not make up for the living conditions where at least 28 inmates share a prison cell with a single pit latrine located on the left side of the entrance of the cell.
Because of unavailability of resources, inmates sleep on the floor, each inmate marks her place with a pile of about four blankets. A few have mattresses which were donated by well-wishers.
It was encouraging to observe that contrary to the notion that prisoners have to share a single blanket, all of them had at least four blankets, which included the popular “2 in 1” blankets.
I was informed that the blankets were a donation from United Family International Church led by Emmanuel Makandiwa and Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra).
Inmates with children also have their own cells, while expectant mothers have their own cells. However, some of these cells do not have toilets inside while some do not have lights.
ZPS public relations officer Elizabeth Banda said the cells housing nursing mothers and students had the benefit of having the lights on 24 hours a day.
“We have some who are studying and would like to wake up in the middle of the night to read. We leave the light on for them as well as nursing mothers who need to feed their children during the night,” she said.
Apart from being exposed to these harsh realities of life in prison, women who have children suffer double impact.
Because of the poor economic climate, government has been unable to adequately feed inmates’ children.
Up until recently when a donor sponsored a chicken project which now generates money that is then used to procure food for the children, the inmates had to share their food with the children.
According to Section 58 of the Prisons Act Chapter 7:11, infants are admitted into prisons with their mothers until they are weaned, whereupon relatives or the social welfare department can take over custody of the children.
But because of treasury’s inability to service government departments and the breakdown of the family unit, some children end up serving time with their mothers where they are exposed pretty much to the same diet and living conditions as their mothers.
During the lunch break, I had the pleasure of sharing a meal of sadza and spinach with the inmates.
The meal, which was cooked by the inmates, was not all that appetising but it was edible, contrary to beliefs that inmates ate sadza with salted water and that their maize meal was laced with cement.
The maize meal was unrefined, and is highly recommended by health experts. There was very little or no cooking oil in the spinach but I ate it all the same. It actually reminded me of my high school days in boarding school.
I also caught up with the prisons dietician Innocent Gandawa who said the inmates’ diet was not balanced.
In the morning, each inmate is supposed to receive porridge with peanut butter and sugar, in the afternoon sadza and vegetables as well as sadza and beans in the evening.
“It is not adequate. They should at least eat meat four times a week but when we have meat it only lasts for about two weeks at each interval,” Gandawa said.
In a separate interview with the Daily News, deputy minister of Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Obert Gutu said food was the biggest challenge in prisons.
In 2011 government gazetted statutory instrument 149 which compels it to provide prisoners with a balanced diet but it has failed to provide these basic food stuffs to the 16 315 inmates in the country’s prisons.
Gutu says giving inmates a proper balanced diet will remain a pipe dream because government does not have adequate funds to make this a reality.
“We call on the prison service to make good use of the farms they have. We have more than 20. If they can be helped to capacitate food requirements,” Gutu said.
“The farms are run at a low capacity, take Khami Prison Farm for instance. It used to have more than 2 000 cattle a few years ago but now down to 400.”
Gutu said the problems bedevilling prison services were a direct result of lack of innovation.
He challenged the prison service to adopt methods being used by other countries in the region which have turned their prisons into productive entities.
“We really need to start thinking outside the box, let’s have our prisons operating as business units like in Swaziland. The prison system there is self-financing because they have various income generating projects like farming.
“In Mexico, the female inmates are involved in lucrative tilapia fishing. They must come up with projects that will finance the prisons because treasury is overwhelmed,” Gutu said. But Banda blames treasury for the sorry state of affairs because it has not released enough funds for operations.
Banda said government should meet the requirements of Statutory Instrument 149 of 2011.
If the statutory instrument is to be used, Zimbabwe will need at least $27,4 million a year to feed its prisoners, which translates to about $5 per prisoner per day.
According to the current figures of people in prisons, government will need at least $75 000 per day and this figure excludes the cost of sanitary ware, other toiletries, blankets and medicine, a factor which could see figures doubling.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which makes regular visits to monitor conditions in prisons, had been assisting ZPS in providing food to about 8000 inmates since 2009 but has since stopped because the organisation feels conditions have now improved.
Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention (Zacro) programmes manager Elisha Chidombwe said although the food situation had improved, more needed to be done to rehabilitate the prisons infrastructure.
He said most of the 46 prisons scattered around the country were built around 1910, save for a few like Chipinge and Kadoma.
Chikurubi Maximum Prison was built in 1970 to accommodate 800 inmates.
“The female section of Chikurubi Prison is temporary. The infrastructure needs rehabilitation, treasury should release funds to rehabilitate prison facilities. ZPS has a mandate to prevent escapes and to rehabilitate inmates but because of the poor infrastructure they spend more time preventing escapes than rehabilitation.
“The fault is not with ZPS. It lies with the whole judicial system as we see trials taking too long and ZPS is the recipient and has nothing to do except accept prisoners,” Chidombwe said.
ZPS also has to grapple with the issue of HIV/Aids, which according to statistics affect more women than men in the world.
During the 2012 budget treasury allocated prisons a measly $5 000 to go towards HIV/Aids programmes but the money is yet to be released.
In spite of that unfortunate state of affairs, the sister-in-charge of the prison clinic Theodora Chadzingwa says they have enough medication for those requiring antiretroviral treatment (ART).
“We do not have drug shortages, in fact accessing ART here is faster because we do our voluntary counselling and testing here, and after that we take blood and do the CD4 count and immediately initiate treatment,” said Chadzingwa.
“We even do prevention of mother to child treatment (PMTCT) and provider initiated testing and counselling (PITC) here,” she said.
Quizzed on the issue of the health hazard and spreading of communicable diseases like tuberculosis, Chadzingwa said they quarantined infected inmates.
It remains to be seen how prison services, which was allocated a mere $68 million in the 2013 budget, will be able to cope with its monthly demands bearing in mind that of the money allocated, $52 million will be used as salaries and allowances leaving them with only $16 million to provide food, proper shelter, health and other necessities like sanitary wear which is not a luxury but a need for women. – Thelma Chikwanha, Features Editor