AFTER going through the arduous security checks at Chikurubi maximum prison entrance, the largest correctional facility in the land, my peers and I were ushered into the habitation of some of the country’s most dangerous convicts.
By Tendai Makaripe
The dreaded place was once home to the late Edgar Masendeke and Stephen Chidhumo, two certified criminals who scripted and implemented probably the greatest escape story at Chikurubi prison.
I recall vividly how people religiously followed the story with intense interest as no one wanted to miss out on any latest developments.
Walking around the reformatory institution and seeing its imposing walls and steel gates, it boggled the mind as to how the two successfully schemed that historical escape.
The pair was however later rearrested and sentenced to death, effectively putting an end to their reign of terror which claimed many lives and left others maimed.
Twenty years later, I found myself in a yard they once trod on but what caught my eye was not the escalating rate of crime evidenced by the thousands of inmates I saw or the deplorable living conditions of convicts but a section of the prison population which is finding the going tough inside the prison walls-these are the prison’s senior citizens, aged 65 years and above.
My heart sank as I came face to face with aging men, some of whom are old enough to be my grandfather, rummaging through cracked plates of seemingly hastily prepared sadza and not so appetising relish.
Clad in tattered apparel in this vicious winter season, some were visibly bearing the brunt of the harsh weather conditions, exposing their already frail frames to diseases.
Many did not have jerseys and those who had them were torn and clearly unable to fend off the ravaging July cold.
“It is a known biological fact that as one ages, the body becomes prone to various ailments and one needs to be constantly checked, eat good food as well as keeping the body fresh and carefully looked after,” said one local doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“However, these things are not readily available in our prisons due to the prevailing economic crisis and this works against the aging inmates whose bodies are easily prone to countless ailments,” he said.
Conditions in the prison cells connive to make life unbearable for the grey haired whose inability to devise effective survival strategies like their able bodied counterparts does not work in their favour.
A small cell is shared by 30 inmates who use a single toilet increasing their chances of contracting diseases like cholera.
Contacted for comment, University of Zimbabwe lecturer and constitutional law expert, Greg Linington said a convicted person is not a non-person, he or she may be deprived of the right to liberty but the right to be treated with dignity should be maintained. However, this right is being violated in the country’s prisons.
“Government should take a stand and improve the welfare of prisoners because it is their responsibility to uphold the rights of convicted persons,” said Linington.
“Human rights groups should also bring litigation to the constitutional court on behalf of the affected prisoners so that government can be pushed to act,” he added.
Despite the harsh conditions they face daily, the aging inmates also have to contend with the nagging and throbbing feeling of neglect which gnaws at their hearts daily.
A sizeable number of them have been labelled as family outcasts because of their crimes and rarely get visits from loved ones.
“I was convicted of rape in 2016 and since then not even a single relative has visited me and it breaks my heart,” said one inmate almost fighting back tears.
“I may have wronged them but that does not make me an evil person. I long to see my grandchildren and spend time with them but it now appears like a pipe dream as everyone has turned their backs on me,” he said.
Namibia University of science and technology senior lecturer and social commentator, Admire Mare said the problem of neglecting prisoners is premised on the fact that society generally isolates those it considers deviants and once the labeling and stigmatization has been done, people distance themselves from societal transgressors.
“More needs to be done to ensure that the Zimbabwe prison services undertakes community awareness programmes to conscientise members of the public on the need to embrace offenders,” said Mare and added: “As part of rehabilitation, the relationship between offenders and those they offended must be repaired. There cannot be rehabilitation without forgiveness.”
Mare also indicated that society’s failure to embrace convicts pushes them to continue committing petty crimes upon their release to eke a living in a society that is not prepared to accept them.
As we walked out of the correctional facility, my thoughts stayed with Chikurubi’s senior citizens whose paths they tread on are plastered with thorns which prickle them daily till the day their liberty is restored.