ZIMBABWE'S prisons have invariably been described as hellholes -- places of extreme misery or squalor -- by serving and former inmates.
Former Chikurubi Maximum Prison inmate Simon Mann, accused of trying to overthrow Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema in 2004, described the prison as a nightmare as it had no ventilation or light, and was lice-infested. He also bemoaned the poor diet.
While the standards reached their nadir during the country's hyperinflationary crisis around 2008, the situation has improved over the years since the country's adoption of a multi-currency regime. However, conditions still fall below the required basic standards of prisons mostly due to lack of funding.
For prison authorities, dealing with inmates with mental problems poses a major challenge. Mentally challenged inmates are forced to share cells with other prisoners due to lack of space and facilities.
This is a source of conflict and discomfort among inmates as most of them are not tolerant of their mentally challenged cellmates.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2009 handbook titled Prisoners with Special Needs, the majority of prison systems worldwide fail to provide an environment which safeguards the mental well-being of its inhabitants.
Isolation from society, poor prison conditions, overcrowding and lack of safety and privacy induce distress and anxiety in most prisoners, which may develop into more serious mental challenges with a serious risk of harming themselves or others.
Last week during a media tour of Harare Central Remand Prison, journalists had the opportunity to visit prisoners' cells and interact with them and staff over general conditions.
The prison's clinic matron Thembekile Tshili said although the general situation at the prison has improved, although the major challenge her clinic faces is dealing with mentally ill inmates.
"Providing appropriate conditions to cater for inmates with mental illness is a big challenge as far as health issues are concerned given what we have had to deal with at the clinic," Tshili said.
"There is a psychiatric unit at Chikurubi prison to cater for inmates, but for them to be taken there we have to wait for a court order. Unfortunately, many things can happen during this waiting period which can be long."
Tshili said the inmates are in need of special care and by staying with normal inmates, they pose a danger to themselves and others.
To exacerbate the situation, the clinic runs out of effective painkillers and other drugs to treat patients.
Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (Zacro) chief executive officer Edson Chiota said his organisation was in the process of negotiating for better conditions for inmates with mental illness.
"While I cannot pre-empt the details as we have not entered a memorandum as yet with our partner, general check-ups and reviews of inmates with mental problems are not as frequent as we would like," said Chiota. "At times it takes more than a month for our two doctors to see the (mental) patients."
He said that it was important for mentally challenged inmates to be separated from normal inmates for their own safety as well as that of other prisoners.
Chiota said apart from being faced with this challenge, prisons did not have enough resources to cater for other basic needs of prisoners.
"They do not have enough uniforms for prisoners to change. Due to the shortage of resources, there are not enough units of correctional processes other than punishment to help rehabilitate prisoners.
"In 1980, there were beds in prisons, where are they today? Every week they would be given bathing soap and toothpaste; is it still available and are towels being changed? Is a balanced diet still provided under the basic feeding scheme?" asked Chiota.
In his speech before the tour, Zimbabwe Prison Service (ZPS) Commissioner retired Major-General Paradzai Zimondi said they were generally "experiencing overcrowding mainly in remand prisons as people continue to commit crimes while it takes long for suspects to stand trial".
He said while they were trying to ensure the safety and security of all prisoners and humane treatment as enshrined in the United Nations Millennium Standard Rules for the Treatment of Offenders, they were failing to satisfactorily provide these necessities mainly due to inadequate funding from the fiscus.
Zimondi said inadequate funding also greatly affected ZPS operations resulting in them failing to fully meet medical requirements. He appealed for donations in cash or kind to improve prisoners' welfare.
He also said although the ZPS benefitted from the land reform programme, not much has been produced for inmates' consumption forcing them to rely heavily on government funding.
Zimondi also admitted prison infrastructure needed upgrading, but financial constraints remained a major hurdle.