NOT too long ago, Vice-President Guy Scott summed up the deplorable state of Zambian prisons when he toured the over-crowded penitentiaries and described the sordid picture of what he had witnessed as "Hell on Earth."
Dr Scott was alluding to the fact that the correctional facilities had become unfit for human habitation, and anybody condemned to do time in prison was effectively consigned to inhumane conditions that have traumatised many inmates in our country.
Harrowing tales abound about the prevalence of all sorts of diseases, sodomy and other unsavoury details about congestion and inadequate sanitary facilities that have rendered the dilapidated prison infrastructure not only unfit for human habitation, but also an aberration on our country's image.
The poor sanitary facilities are a source of several contagious diseases that have claimed the lives of many prisoners.
This situation has been exacerbated by congestion because most prisons in Zambia were built during the colonial era and were intended to cater for much fewer convicts.
The rapid rise in Zambia's population, from a paltry three million-plus at independence in 1964 to the current 13 million, has seen a concomitant rise in the number of offenders, a situation that has imposed exacting demands on the limited capacity in prisons throughout the country.
Although most citizens harbour no empathy for the incarcerated offenders, particularly those convicted for murder, aggravated robbery, rape and other felonies, Government has a responsibility to ensure that correctional facilities meet basic standards of hygiene expected in a civilised society.
Against this background, it is gratifying to note that Government has taken pragmatic steps to address the plight of inmates, culminating in the largest transfer of prisoners from Kabwe's Mukobeko Maximum
Security Prison to the newly completed Mwembeshi Maximum Security Prison in Mumbwa District.
The new prison, which has modern ablutions and other attendant facilities, will go a long way in decongesting Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison.
Many of the health concerns that afflict the prison infrastructure in several parts of the country will not arise at Mwembeshi which has a capacity to hold 650 inmates.
As Home Affairs Minister Edgar Lungu observed yesterday during the commissioning of the new maximum security prison, Government's prime focus was on rehabilitation of offenders as opposed to punitive incarceration that ends up dehumanising prisoners.
This policy is premised on the imperative need to uphold human rights of the citizenry so as to comply with international standards and statutes that the country subscribes to.
In furtherance of this objective, the minister directed the Zambia Prisons Service to provide comprehensive data on all detainees who have been languishing in prison for 10 years or longer, without trial, so that their cases could be expeditiously dealt with.
As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied. The inordinate delays often encountered in disposing of cases amounts to travesty of justice and ought to be addressed urgently to avoid inadvertent breaches of human rights.
President Sata has pardoned a number of prisoners since his assumption of office, a clear indication that he does not want his Government's image to be sullied by the breaches of human rights associated with Zambian prisons where some suspects languish for years without trial.
The prison reform programme has got the desired boost with the completion of Mwembeshi Maximum Security Prison in spite of the construction delays that dogged the project due to scarcity of funds.