Shouldn’t human rights apply to all humans, even prisoners?
Should the crime of stealing a piece of meat be punishable by death? In Zimbabwe’s prisons even a short incarceration period has a high probability of ending an inmate’s life, a fate that torments prisoners when they are imprisoned.
By Emily Wellman
All human beings deserve and have the right to food, shelter, adequate sanitation, security and fair legal representation as well as just judicial processing. Section 11 of Zimbabwe’s constitution declares further that all people are protected from torture and inhumane or degrading treatment. This should apply to prisoners who are under the care of the state whilst serving out a sentence. However, the plight of prisoners in any of Zimbabwe’s 55 prisons with a capacity of 17 00 inmates, but which currently house over 35 000 has been exposed by various lobby groups and, more recently, by Special Assignment, a South African investigative television programme.
The images of emaciated and diseased prisoners are not easily forgotten. The entire population of Zimbabwean prisoners are starving in the literal sense of the word unless they can rely on family or friends to provide them with food. This has, over the years, become harder and harder for kin to do with hyper-inflation rendering food out of reach for most of the population coupled with petrol and transport costs outweighing the salaries of those lucky enough to be employed.
Men need at least 7 000 and women 5 000 kilojoules a day. Weight loss will still occur but for short periods, life will be sustained. In Chikurubi, one of Harare’s maximum security prisons it is common for prisoners to receive only a handful of sadza (maize meal) with water and a pinch of salt. This means prisoners are living on roughly 400 kilojoules a day. The dietary ramifications of this long term malnutrition are extensive as can be seen in the rising numbers of prisoners infected with pellagra, a deficiency disease.
Women who are arrested whilst pregnant or those who fall pregnant from rape in custody do not have adequate nutrition to grow healthy babies, and if born, babies and young children do not have the nutrients or appropriate food types to promote healthy growth and mental development. Men and women with HIV or Aids perish quickly as a healthy and clean lifestyle cannot be lived and without food, even if anti-retroviral medication was available it cannot be administered effectively.
In addition, the lack of sanitation resulting in human excrement being present in all areas of the prison and cells and limited opportunities to bathe have resulted in prisons become breeding grounds for disease and opportunistic infections. Women have it harder than men as without running water or sanitary wear and only one uniform, monthly menstrual cycles have become a humiliating and unhealthy bodily function. These hardships are only compounded by the inappropriate housing of inmates. For example, mentally ill prisoners mix with the general population, women are sometimes searched by male warders and children are often held in unsuitable social situations.
Zimbabwe’s prisons have a rising death toll that can be as high as 20 corpses a day. These bodies are often piled into huts outside the prisons as there is no fuel for the Prison Service to transport them to local cemeteries or morgues. Family members are unable to pay for coffins legally required for burial and as a result bodies are frequently neither claimed nor buried leaving them to decompose into the surrounding soil emitting a stench which is inescapable. Some prisons have performed mass burials to cope with the bodies, but it is not clear if anyone is keeping records that include detail on where individual prisoners are laid to rest. This may make it difficult for families to locate the burial sites of their relatives should proper burial become feasible.
Constitutionally and morally the right to food and access to medical care are two of the most basic human rights. Zimbabwe has not ratified the Untied Nations Declaration on Human Rights. However, in addition to protections provided under its Constitution, Zimbabwe is party to international human rights treaties, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that privilege an individual’s rights to adequate food, water and medical attention.
Zimbabwe does have limited resources at present. In such an instance, the question becomes should prisons benefit from donor aid when innocent people are in as much need? While the issues surrounding reform of the justice system in Zimbabwe are numerous and complex, the same does not apply to the issue of access to food. The prison sector needs to be given a higher status when aid agencies allocate humanitarian assistance, as prisoners cannot fend for themselves. Food and medical treatment will curb the death toll and will prevent avoidable deaths in the future.
In the longer term, the Prison Service is in need of both institutional reform and structural improvement. The over-crowding could be eased if those in remand are either charged with a crime, or released if no case can be brought against them. Those who are in cells and have not been charged or have been victims of unfair periods of detention should again either be released or taken to court. If prisoners were detained without proper paperwork, have been tortured by state agents or are terminally ill, they too should be free if a legal reason for detaining them cannot be found.
Prison service officials will need training on how to run detention centres within the confines of the law. For that to transpire, the mindset of political intolerance that has been ingrained in many for the last ten years will have to be adjusted. Direction from top government officials leading by example in showing political tolerance would go a long way to helping the foot soldiers of the old regime to alter their attitudes and actions towards a more democratic dispensation.
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