HARARE — Every couple of weeks, inmates at Harare Central and Chikurubi prisons in Zimbabwe greet the arrival of bakery trucks with roars of approval, whistles and dancing.
The trucks arrival signals a rare few days of bread to relieve a prison diet that is sparse and monotonous.
“The bread is in fact, condemned (rejected) by the bakery, but it still brings joy to prisoners because it is some of the best food they ever get behind those walls,” Kerina Dehwa, a former prisoner who recently spent more than a year at Chikurubi Female Prison, about 15km east of the capital Harare, awaiting trial, said.
She was among 21 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) party who were accused of murdering a senior police officer. All, but five of them were recently acquitted by the Harare High Court.
“Whenever the trucks came, the prison wardens selected loaves still in good condition, packed them in boxes and took them home, leaving us with the bad ones,” she said.
The bread was then doled out over two or three days, by the end of which it was mouldy.
After that, the inmates reverted to the usual 10am breakfast of black tea and a sugarless, watery porridge.
Former prisoners said the only other meal of the day, served at 2pm, usually consisted of a small portion of isitshwala/sadza — a thick maize meal porridge — served with boiled green vegetables or weevil-infested beans.
Zimbabwe has 40 prisons, most of them small, accommodating an estimated 17 000 prisoners in total.
Humanitarian organisations and human rights activists blame the paucity and poor quality of prison food on the general underfunding of correctional facilities, an absence of political will and government interference with non-governmental organisations attempting to support prisoners.
“The food situation in prisons is horrible and it is getting worse,” Douglas Mwonzora, a former MDC Member of Parliament and past chairman of the parliamentary committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, said.
He added the formation of a government of national unity in early 2009 had slightly improved prison conditions, at a time when an average of 20 prisoners were dying daily, according to the Zimbabwe Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (Zacro).
Also in 2009, Zacro and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stepped in to provide additional food and water to inmates.
In 2009, South African investigative television documentary programme, Special Assignment, secretly filmed conditions in two of Zimbabwe’s 55 prisons and revealed emaciated inmates (Credit: Special Assignment/SABC).
However, ICRC and Zacro stopped giving help to prisoners in 2011. ICRC said it was withdrawing support because the food situation in Zimbabwe had improved, while Zacro said its resources were depleted.
A lawyer with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Tawanda Zhuwarara, however, said the withdrawal “reflected growing tension between the Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa and non-governmental organisations”.
Zanu PF overwhelmingly won elections held in July this year after an unhappy four-year partnership with two factions of the MDC, which had been assigned mainly social service and financial portfolios, although correctional services had remained under the control of Zanu PF’s Chinamasa.
Mwonzora said improved food security had not benefited prisons, which continued to receive inadequate food supplies.
“It is all about resources and poor policy decisions by the government, which has all along failed to release money to improve prison conditions while Zimbabwe Prison Services is also crippled as it lacks resources to feed the inmates,” he said.
A Masvingo-based prison warden, who declined to be identified, said: “We have six farms across the country, but there is hardly any production taking place there. The farms could go a long way in feeding prisoners, using prisoners’ labour, but equipment is broken down and we have no farming experts.”
The acute lack of food in prisons has spawned corruption and sexual abuse among inmates and prison wardens, according to John Moyo, another former MDC-T inmate.
“Prisoners trade whatever they would have brought to jail with the wardens, who then bring them food to the cells. In some cases, the wardens are given money to smuggle in food from relatives of the inmates, but all this is not allowed by prison regulations,” he said.
Moyo, who was incarcerated at both Harare Central and Chikurubi prisons, said prison authorities barred visitors from giving inmates cooked food, saying they feared it could lead to the spread of diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
He added that some prisoners, particularly those who have already been tried and sentenced, resorted to having sex with fellow inmates in exchange for food and cigarettes smuggled in by the wardens or relatives.
“The victims were mostly young men who were abused because of the hunger in prisons. My worry is that many of them might have contracted HIV,” he said.
He described the prisons as “death traps”, claiming he had seen many inmates die of disease and malnutrition.
Cells were overpopulated and often contaminated with sewage, and inmates suffering from communicable diseases were kept together with those who were healthy.
In 2011, following visits to five facilities, the parliamentary committee on human rights released a report condemning prison conditions.
The report noted that “lack of toiletries, ablution facilities and the unavailability of water for a long time at some prisons were disturbing” and that “prisoners’ diets needed to be improved”.