Harare, Zimbabwe – For convening what the police called an illegal gathering in Harare’s central business district, Parere Kunyenzura stayed 187 days in a prison cell last year without trial. Inmates came and left, but his enduring if unwanted companion was the powerful stench of human faeces and urine.
It was the worst at night when he and more than 100 other inmates were all locked up from 3pm to 6am. They piled up on the floor next to each other to share lice-infested blankets left behind by previous inmates.
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During his time in jail, Kunyenzura frequently saw many inmates resort to defecating in plastic buckets. “The toilets don’t have a flushing system or don’t have the sitting bowls. Of the few that do, the flushing system doesn’t work,” he told Al Jazeera.
Kunyezura, a clergyman and leader of the Zimbabwe Transformative Party (ZTP), would silently pray that no one would suffer bouts of diarrhoea. But one night, a case of badly cooked spinach triggered a messy episode, and the inmates had to endure the putrid smell of faecal waste for up to 15 hours before it was cleaned.
“It was a crisis,” he told Al Jazeera. The buckets were not enough.”
Misheck Nyembe, a 72-year-old pensioner who spent 13 days behind bars in January for attending a political meeting the police had not given a permit for, told Al Jazeera that the prison was “infested with lice” and his body was itchy for weeks after his release. Nyembe, who ate only food provided by his family during his detention, said the prison meals were only “fit for pigs”.
“Everything about prison [in Zimbabwe] is horrible,” said Wilbert Mandinde, programmes coordinator at Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, which advocates for prisoners’ rights, including the right to vote and have access to water. “The conditions are terrible in the sense that they are congested.”
‘A need to decongest’
Since independence from Britain in 1980, the Southern African country has relied heavily on colonial-era facilities to hold criminal offenders. These facilities have long been overburdened and are now bursting at the seams as Zimbabwe’s economic woes worsen.
According to its justice ministry, there are 46 prisons in Zimbabwe. Two are exclusively for female inmates, 17 for men only, and the rest are mixed gender.
The prisons, which have the capacity to hold 17,000 inmates, were accommodating 23,000 as of March 2021. Harare’s Remand Prison, built in 1910 for a capacity of 800 people, now holds about 2,220, according to the justice ministry.
Even a 2018 pardon of almost 3,000 prisoners by the government did not help significantly.
In 2022, the World Prison Brief, published by the University of London’s Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, ranked Zimbabwe’s prisons as the 75th most overcrowded globally on a list of 203 countries. The database lists its occupancy rate at 130 percent.
“Post-independence, we have done very little in terms of building new prisons. Additionally, the country’s population has increased tremendously since independence,” Mandinde told Al Jazeera.
From independence to the last population count in 2022, Zimbabwe’s population had swelled from 7 million to 15 million people. Madinde added that population growth in the midst of an economic downturn has spurred an increase in criminal activity.
“The economy is bad and criminal activity has risen, and this has caused the overcrowding of facilities. … There are instances where we have been at more than 100% holding capacity,” he said. “The number of people in prison remains very high, and there is a need to decongest the prison.”
United Nations resolutions on basic treatment of prisoners stipulate that they be treated “fairly and with dignity”, regardless of the nature of their crimes. They have set out the basic minimum standards for their treatment, including food, clothing, medical care and access to legal assistance.
But in Zimbabwe, these standards have become nonexistent as the country’s economic woes have worsened, analysts said.
“Ever since the country started experiencing an economic meltdown almost two decades ago, prisons have been failing to perform their mandate of providing a decent diet among other things,” said Edison Chihota, chief executive of Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO).
Rising inflation means allocated funds are no longer enough to feed prisoners or fund organisations like ZACRO, he said. Consequently, prison authorities now rely on private sector donations for essential needs.
A prison warden who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity said he was struggling to survive on a salary with constantly depreciating value.
It remains unclear what the budget allocation to the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) is because it is disbursed at the discretion of the justice ministry.
Mandinde told Al Jazeera that there was also no long-term plan to tackle the overcrowding of prisons.
“We had this serious problem when COVID-19 hit, which required people to be isolated and reduced inmates,” he said. Other than presidential amnesties, there has been no plan to decongest the prison. We have seen that with amnesty, those pardoned inmates end up back in prison in no time.”
Neither ZPCS spokesperson Meya Khanyezi nor Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the allegations or general state of the prisons.
A tool of repression
Former inmates of the Harare Remand facility told Al Jazeera that they either witnessed or suffered violence at the hands of prison guards.
“Not a day went by without someone getting beaten up for no apparent reason. It was the order of the day,” Kunyenzura said.
Others complained of filmed strip searches, and some inmates said they were forced to attend church services, regardless of their religious rights and beliefs, and beaten for not singing or participating enough.
Another increasing burden on the prison system is the rise in detentions of activists and opposition figures without trial for long periods of time. In the past year, close to 100 opposition supporters have been arrested and detained for varying periods.
That, Kunyenzura says, is evidence that the justice system is now a tool to silence critics.
“Our judiciary system is by and large captured by [the ruling party] Zanu-PF. … It seemed to us during our persecution that the magistrates were simply told, ‘Do XYZ to suspect so and so,’ and they didn’t have control over the matter,” Kunyenzura said. “At the back of their minds, we were political offenders.”