14 November 2012

Zambia: Prisoners - Endangered Species

opinion

LIFE in Zambia's prisons is the most dreaded.

Once someone is incarcerated, it is like he/she is joining endangered species.

For one thing, Zambia's criminal justice system does not seem to respect nor protect the rights of prisoners.

In fact suspects are told this even before charged by arresting officers, some of whom start torturing these people from their work stations.

Cases abound in our nation of so many prisoners usually spending years behind bars awaiting resolution of their cases.

Still many others do not serve time in jail following a conviction, but are there for the most part on remand, awaiting trial or other legal action.

The worst part for these inmates is that they normally do not have access to a lawyer, least of all bail, and have had to wait months, if not years, for an initial appearance before a judge.

This constitutes one of Zambia's justice failures which, of necessity, lead to overcrowding in the prisons dotted around Zambia.

It is not surprising, therefore, to hear a prison official saying, for instance, that this prison was meant for 200 inmates but accommodates 2,000.

Or that this structure was built for 500 but is holding 5,000 inmates and so on and so forth.

In the worse case scenario, you could find children and adults (including pregnant women), remandees and convicted detainees all held together in spaces so tight that they are forced to sleep seated or in shifts.

The same holding cells also have tins for the inmates to answer the call of nature, be it passing water or otherwise.

In addition, although prisoners get involved in agricultural production, as well as other finance generation activities such as in manufacturing things like furniture, the food they are provided with is inadequate.

Reports from many prisons indicate that this has led to a situation where this food has essentially become a commodity traded for sex, hence the often reported incidences of sodomy.

These, coupled with inadequate medical care, has created a further problem of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS.

This then means that besides STIs, even such air-born infections as tuberculosis (TB) do easily find fertile ground to strike.

As if this is not bad enough, our prisoners do not access clean water.

Neither are they provided with bathing soap, while bathing facilities are generally described as squalid.

All these, together with the well-known poor nutrition and sanitation, diminish any hope of inmates enjoying even the minimal human rights.

For the prisoners, our jails are health hazards which have turned those behind bars into nothing less than endangered species.

Many prisoners are not provided with uniforms but are instead subjected to wearing rags. Those who have tasted prison life say that blankets, wherever they are found, crawl with lice. And the list is endless.

It is highly unlikely that a convict exposed to this type of treatment will reform even if serving a full jail term.

That's why we hear of released jailbirds go on to commit worse crimes, the case of jerabos being just one.

We are, however, filled with a sense of optimism following an assurance by Vice-President Guy Scott that the Government is committed to upholding human rights for prisoners.

We just hope that with this assurance, our prisoners will no longer continue to be detained for years in such appalling conditions before they are brought to trial.

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