Sandra Maricho takes us behind the barbed wire stockade of Wha Wha prison in Gweru.
Every time I heard about prisoners, I always developed feelings of hatred towards them and believed they are right where they deserve to be. I was one of the people who believed that criminals should pay for their crimes in the hardest of ways because of the discomfort that they cause in society. However, a recent visit to Wha Wha prison in the Midlands changed my mind due to the dire situation I witnessed.
Visiting prison for Lent
It being the period of Lenten Sacrifice where Catholics are urged to help the disadvantaged in our society, women at the local parish here in Gweru, were encouraged to go and share the little they have with young prisoners at Wha wha Young Offenders Prison. So as a member of the catholic women I chose to join them despite my hard-line stance against prisoners in general.
All of us were encouraged to bring presents to give these young prisoners on the day. I remember our leader asking for peoples' opinions on what was to be more important for us to give to the young prisoners.
"We have to buy something they will appreciate and remember us for," she would say.
Bringing home comforts to prison
We agreed they should be in need of warm and delicious food stuffs - things they probably last ate before being imprisoned, including soap, toiletries and shoes. One Church elder brought with her a box full of fresh apples and bananas. At parish level we also contributed some money to buy plastic sandals in bulk.
On the day of travel, we became confident our mission would succeed easily - more so because prior communication had been made to the prison authorities.
We began the journey in the morning and in few minutes time we were already at the main gate of the prison. We were relieved to enter through the gate without any security hassles. We were led into the office of the prison boss where we presented our items. However, a huge shock awaited us.
Helping hands turned away
After everyone had settled, the prison boss announced that we were no longer allowed to hand over our presents to the prisoners because our pass was not processed in time. We were asked to return with our goods because there was nothing that could be done. We were not even allowed to take photos as the prison officers flatly told us the prison was a high security zone.
One woman came up with a brilliant idea and asked whether there was someone with a relative in the prison cells so that the items will be presented through one of the inmates. Everyone agreed with her saying the inmates might then be able to share at least the perishables.
It was a possible idea but unfortunately no one amongst the women had a detained relative. It got so tense and emotions rose to an extent where some elderly women shed tears. From a distance, we could see how the young offenders are suffering. Perhaps some of them have been abandoned by their relatives and no one takes care of their needs. We saw some of them walking into the fields barefooted yet we were denied the opportunity to present them with the sandals we had brought them. The young prisoners who were in small groups stared at us from a distance, all of them looking pale, wasted and tired.
Prisoners share their stories
The few who were allowed to have few words with us painfully talked of how they had to smuggle rations into their cells while enduring blocked and overflowing toilets and going days without adequate food, no electricity, no water and lice-infested blankets. They said many of their colleagues actually died due to malnutrition and lack of standard dietary scales.
But we could not assist them with anything because we had not been "cleared by top bosses." We had to return home with the items we brought them until the authorities from the head office approved our visit. Weeks have passed and that approval is yet to come.
Hypocrisy of prison authorities
What hypocrisy and insincerity! We always hear the prison authorities begging for assistance to help the dire situation in the prisons but alas, on the ground, such pledges are met with hostility. Our country needs to improve on its policies in order to allow for true correctional and rehabilitation services to succeed in the prisons- especially on young offenders. If we are going to deny simple basic human needs such as love, then it means these young criminals will only become hardened. Their day to day tribulations like shortage of basic food-stuffs should be a cause of concern for the government.
Even though they are offenders, society must still respect the rights of prisoners.
Sandra Maricho is a Midlands State University graduate. She owns two flea market stalls in Gweru where she lives. She is also a freelance journalist and fan of Manchester City Football Club.