Most of us have at least once in our lives had an encounter with a thief, a con artist or someone whom we felt should be incarcerated. They robbed you of your most prized possession and you felt prison was the best place for them. In fact we have often celebrated guilty verdicts and felt relieved because society was better off without them. For the victims of crime; sentencing is the end of the journey in the saga, but not for the accused! It is the beginning of a nightmare which most of us choose to ignore and pretend we know nothing off.
Why then are people incarcerated? Is it because they deserve it? What do we aim to accomplish by incarcerating people? Do we want them to be rehabilitated and come back into society changed people? Or is our aim simply to lock them up and throw away the keys so that they never bother us again? If it is the former, then, we have failed by a long shot.
In Zimbabwean prisons life is unbearable. Numerous reports have documented the state of prisons and prisoner’s lives. In a report presented to parliament in 2011 by a task committee, it was noted that the conditions were not fit for any human being.
The prisoners do not have adequate clothing and blankets. The cells are lice infested. Some cells do not have ablutions and the prisoners have to resolve to bucket systems making them susceptible to commutable diseases. In other cells where the ablutions are functional there is no privacy and in other areas the plumbing system does not work and the toilets are still being used. Prisoners are given one roll of toilet paper every two weeks, soap and other detergents provided are below the bare minimum. The female prisoners do not have adequate sanitary wear, in fact they are given one sanitary pad per day and they now resolve to using pieces of clothes and blankets as sanitary wear, posing serious health risks.
Food rations are inadequate and many prisoners have skin diseases resulting from poor diets.
Health care system in prison is non-existent; a prisoner is only taken to a hospital if he is critical, but who defines critical? When they have been asked to come back to hospital on a certain day or certain medication is prescribed they neither return nor get the medication. One of the biggest health challenges to the prisons is of HIV positive prisoners. There is erratic provision of life saving drugs as the prisons are underfunded.
The explanation given is that the prison system is inadequately funded.
Some prisoners are in remand for up to 8 years without trial. Those sentenced to death were held in solitary confinement and only allowed to exercise for an hour; some had been on death roll for almost 13 years.
Is this the correctional system we are sending our fellow men to? Does anyone deserve to be in such a place no matter what they have done?
Zimbabwe should be thinking about alternative punitive methods that would benefit society as a whole. We live in a society where a man gets 10 years for reconnecting his electricity after it is disconnected by ZESA. A society where one faces up to 10 years for viewing videos of the Egyptian uprising and the same sentence for stealing cattle. A society where one can be severely beaten unto death for a missing cell phone and purse that belongs to a police officer’s wife. Should we then not be concerned about how we treat our prisoners? For all we know they could be one of 30 people accused of killing one policeman.
It is not justifiable in any way to hold someone in such deplorable conditions. When a person is incarcerated they become a ward of the state and the state ought to ensure the respect of basic human rights. Like Mahatma Gandhi said the measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.