Periodic visits in prisons help improve inmates’ rights

Gibson Mhaka
OVERCROWDING and sleeping on the floor while braving the cold of the night is apparently the daily life in most of the country’s prisons, a fact that is now being seen firsthand and reported on by the same judges responsible for ordering the incarceration of the many in the jail system.

Officially opening the 2016 legal year in Bulawayo, Judge President Justice George Chiweshe slammed judges on their failure to conduct periodic visits to the country’s prisons to meet inmates.

Justice Chiweshe was spot-on since it is also the duty of the criminal court judges to check whether the conditions of detention respect fundamental rights. Justice Chiweshe mentioned lack of prison visits by judges as some of the general matters affecting the country’s justice delivery system.

“There has not been much activity by way of prison visits by judges. This must be addressed. Prison visits are important as they afford the prisoners an opportunity to present their complaints to a visiting judge who ordinarily wields sufficient power and influence to direct appropriate action on the part of prisons, police, prosecutors and other court officials,” he said.

From Justice Chiweshe’s remarks it is clear that although one of the main objectives of incarceration is to curtail the liberty of movement of a person found to have violated the established law of the land, prisons however, have become institutions in which fundamental rights of intimates are unofficially violated and officially denied.

There is a strong need for frequent visits by judges to prisons in order to monitor conditions and remarkably make suitable recommendations for the reformation of both prisons and prisoners.

According to United Nations basic principles for the treatment of prisoners, the visits by judges are also important in order for them to be satisfied with the law and rules regulating the management of prisons and prisoners and to hear and inquire into any complaint(s) that any prisoner may make and to see, if necessary, if any book, paper or record (other than those of confidential nature) are connected with the administration of the prison.

A senior prison officer based at Khami Maximum Prison who spoke on condition of anonymity for professional reasons said visits by judges to prisons were of value in providing humanitarian aid to prison inmates secluded from the society.

“Since there is a growing perception that prisons are growing to be places of low visibility where inhuman and even cruel conditions are prevailing, visits by judges to prisons are of importance.

“This is so because State supervision over day-to-day happenings within such institutions has become a mere formality. I think comments by Judge President Justice George Chiweshe that there has not been much activity by way of prison visits by judges should be taken seriously by fellow judges so as to ensure that rights of prisoners are not violated either by prison officials or conditions of the prison. Indeed, prison inmates deserve respect,” he said.

The senior prison officer said prisons inmates should not be punished but instead be rehabilitated so that in future they can be reintegrated back into society.

In 2010 during a tour of Khami Maximum Prison Complex on the outskirt of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service Commissioner-General Paradzai Zimondi bemoaned the conditions in the country’s prisons and urged Government to allocate more funds so that their operations could be upgraded.

He said the infrastructure in the country’s prisons was not adequate for juveniles and female inmates with children saying there was a need to build more friendly structures so that rehabilitation programmes could run efficiently.

“The existing infrastructure in our prisons is not conducive for juveniles and females with children and there is a need to build special prisons for them. Our prisons are in a dilapidated state and the manner in which they were constructed is not friendly to female inmates with children.  There is a need to construct modern prisons that will cater for females and we need to have at least one open prison in each administrative region so as to ensure that rehabilitation programmes are administered effectively,” said Rtd Maj-Gen Zimondi.

Late last year Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services Deputy Chaplain-General Amos Chirara commended churches for visiting prisons saying it helped shape offenders into responsible citizens towards creation of a peaceful and crime-free society as well as promoting  spiritual growth  and economic empowerment for inmates and ex-convicts.

Officiating during the Zimbabwe Prisons Ministries’ Zimbabwe Prisons Ministries’ pastoral arm African Correctional Chaplains Association (AFCA) graduation ceremony in Bulawayo, he commended the 40 pastors  who had graduated saying they were now equipped with the necessary expertise to provide spiritual guidance to those who are incarcerated in Zimbabwe’s prison institutions.

“As AFCA’s mandate is to facilitate and actively support re-integration and re-socialisation activities and provide pastoral care, counselling and humanitarian assistance for inmates and ex-inmates you are now expected to offer exit support to released inmates, provide humanitarian assistance to inmates, ex-inmates and those affected by crime.

“You are also expected to facilitate crime victim-offender reconciliation as well as the counselling of inmates and ex-inmates for their successful and sustainable re-integration,” he said.

AFCA chairman for Bulawayo Pastor Frank Mhlanga said programmes and visits to prison by the church would deliver new ways of thinking for inmates and ex-offenders.

“We are committed to ensuring that all inmates and ex-convicts have access to pastoral support just as other people have access to such support. We are also committed to ensuring that our members should be able and capable of providing pastoral support to all those who want it, irrespective of their religion or beliefs.

“As AFCA we are building a Christian network to provide that support, initially focusing on prisons. There is a huge shortage in the provision of pastoral support for and by non-religious people in prison institutions. Ultimately thousands of prisoners and ex-convicts are benefiting from our pastoral support.

“When you have more people coming to show their concern and care for the inmates their behaviour gets better. They will develop an even greater love for each other because they see some people from the outside coming in to share with them whether it’s Bible study or motivational speaking,” he said.