Zimbabwe prisoners starve to death as service collapses
By Violet Gonda
23 March 2008
A major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Zimbabwe’s prisons, due to lack of food and a total break down of the prison service. It’s reported that inmates ravaged by disease and hunger are ‘dying like flies’ with no solution in sight. This is happening while the ‘chefs’ continue to splash out millions of dollars on fancy cars for themselves.
Although access to the prisons is restricted, reports from relatives and friends of inmates have exposed the dire situation. This past week an estimated 1,300 people at Harare Central Prison were left to starve, as the prison ran out of food completely.
While some relatives and friends are providing a vital lifeline for their loved ones by taking in much needed food regularly, the prison service is now relying heavily on donations of soya beans and mealie meal to feed the general prison population.
A rights activist, speaking on condition of anonymity on Monday, said the inmates at Harare Central are fed just once a day, at around 3pm, and on Sunday they had a few soya beans, with nothing else.
We were not able to get prison authorities to confirm the situation, but our source said about 10 inmates are dying everyday at Harare Central Prison alone.
“It’s pretty shocking when we’ve got between 1,300 and 1,500 prisoners in a prison and there is no food to feed them. If you are in the bush you can forage, but in a prison there is not much you can do if you are not getting food,” the activist said. Many prisoners have suppressed immune systems, due to HIV infection, a situation that is worsened by lack of proper food.
It’s also reported there is no coal for the boilers at Harare Central and so inmates are cutting down trees on the side of the road for firewood. Our source said: “I don’t know how the prisoners are able to cut down the trees because if you look at some of them on the side of the road, their legs are about the size of a woman’s wrist.”
MDC official Roy Bennett, who spent a month in Mutare Remand Prison, said it’s a major humanitarian disaster. “There is absolutely nothing in the prisons. Prisoners get one meal a day – a piece of sadza the size of your hand and water with salt in it. Those prisoners who do not have relatives or people outside supporting them are in worse conditions – or look like those emaciated, skeletal bodies we saw during the holocaust. Basically it is a human rights tragedy and a serious abuse of human rights.”
He said that five people died while he was there, in the most terrible circumstances, ‘unconscious and defecating in their blankets.’
An additional horror is the fact that because of the general break down of the prison system, dead bodies are not removed immediately. Bennett said, “They sit in the laundry, there is no mortuary. Most of them sit there for four days – one sat for five days. They had to put them in plastic bags.”
Many detainees are in prison without ever having been convicted in a court of law, which has exacerbated the overcrowding conditions in remand prisons. On numerous occasions prison authorities have failed to take the detainees to court because of the fuel shortages.
Meanwhile, the pressure group Sokwanele is appealing to well wishers to donate food to Harare Central Prison. The group said donations can be sent to Chaplain Kurida on +263 4 793891 extension 163. Sokwanele said: “Please give what you can: especially beans, vegetables, mealie meal, salt and soap. The soap is to help clean the cells and prevent the spread of infections and diseases - the prisoners have weakened immune systems from nutrition-poor diets and are exposed to horrific conditions.”