In Zimbabwe, conditions are not favourable to women prisoners

In Harare today, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Law Society of Zimbabwe launched a joint research report, Pre-Trial Detention in Zimbabwe: Analysis of the Criminal Justice System and Conditions of Pre-Trial Detention. The conditions are infernal, evil, and lethal, but you knew that already. Over 100 human beings starved to death in Zimbabwe’s prisons last year. Prisoners like Rebecca Mafukeni died, or were killed, through malign neglect. Other prisoners confirm Yvonne Musarurwa’s description of Zimbabwe’s prisons as nightmare. Not nightmarish. Nightmare itself. In Zimbabwe, prison = death.

Thanks to direct and indirect political control of the police and the corrections system, the prisons are severely overcrowded. That’s why Robert Mugabe gave `amnesty’ to some 2000 prisoners a couple weeks ago. The presidential amnesty released all women prisoners, except those serving life sentences, and all juveniles. Terminally ill prisoners and elderly prisoners were also released. 505 women were promised release; three were left inside.

According to Female Prisoner Support Trust (FEMPRIST) director Rita Nyamupinga, “These women were caught up in criminal activities out of ignorance.” For example, somebody hid a gun allegedly used in a crime at one woman’s house, apparently unbeknownst to her. When found, she was sent to prison … for life. As so often occurs, around the world, the three women were abandoned, especially by male partners, once they went behind bars.

Today’s report adds remand prisoners to the picture. Thirty percent, one of three, residents of Zimbabwe’s prisons and jails are awaiting trial. They’re not guilty, and they’re not convicted. They’re just too poor or too despised by the regime to be allowed freedom. Despite a “strong legislative framework”, “excessive detention” goes hand in glove with administrative incompetence and political malfeasance

Whatever the causes, the lived reality is severely overcrowded, deadly prisons, housing close to 17,000 people, where some have waited for two months for their trials while others have waited eleven years. Eleven years a remand prisoner.

And for women: “Mlondolozi, Shurugwi and Chikurubi are the only fully fledged female prisons in Zimbabwe. All the other prisons have a section that has been set aside for women and the conditions are not favourable to female inmates. In particular, pregnant inmates are treated like any other female prisoner, without due recognition of their needs. After giving birth at public health facilities, they are returned to jail with their newly born babies – sometimes as young as a day or two old. Unfortunately, prison facilities are not designed to support the post-natal care of either the mothers or the babies. The plight of older children incarcerated alongside their mothers is also serious since there are no proper facilities to cater for their early childhood development needs because the ZPS does not have a budget line for such support.”

One former prisoner remembers, “It is inhuman and completely degrading for 17 women to be packed into a cell that does not even have a toilet. Particularly because by 4pm you are already locked up in the cell and it will only be opened in the morning between 6 and 7am. I think it is particularly inhuman to force those women to relieve themselves in little containers that they have each cut around.”

Zimbabwe’s prisons are designed to be destructive to fatal for pregnant women, indigent women, women with children, women living with HIV, women living with any chronic illness, women living with any disability, all women. Don’t release 500 only to replace them with 1000. Open the gates, tear down the walls, start anew.


(Photo Credit: Wits Justice Project)