The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is feeding 6,300 prisoners in Zimbabwe's jails and this number is expected to rise as the international aid agency expands the survey of inmate nutritional levels.
Askar Umarbekov, ICRC head of operations in Zimbabwe, told IRIN that the prisons in most provinces had been surveyed, but declined to divulge the prisoners' state of health as all findings were confidential.
Prisons in the second city, Bulawayo, and most other provinces had been seen by the ICRC teams, but those in and around the capital, Harare, have yet to be visited.
A report by Zimbabwe's Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender, an NGO advocating the rights of prisoners, said at least 20 inmates were dying daily in the country's jails.
In March 2009 the South African investigative television documentary programme, Special Assignment, secretly filmed conditions in two of Zimbabwe's 55 prisons and revealed emaciated inmates surviving on a daily handful of prison rations of sadza, or maize-meal porridge, the staple food.
Justice and Legal Affairs Minister Patrick Chinamasa told local media a few days before the documentary was broadcast: "As I speak, the [overall] prison population is at its lowest - 14,000; we have never been that low." He admitted to poor nutritional levels, but dismissed reports that cholera was afflicting inmates.
Umarbekov said the documentary programme, Hell Hole, had had an impact but "was not directly linked" to the ICRC's "offer of services made in December 2008" to the prison authorities to assist in providing adequate nutrition to prisoners. Food assistance to prisons started in April 2009, he said.
|Once the food situation has stabilized, the ICRC will continue to assess the overall conditions of detention. In cooperation with the authorities, it will refurbish kitchen and sanitation facilities, and upgrade water supply systems|
The documentary was made during the lean season - the few months before the main maize harvest - when about seven million Zimbabweans were receiving emergency food assistance, and a nationwide cholera outbreak had killed thousands of people and infected tens of thousands more.
"Once the food situation has stabilized, the ICRC will continue to assess the overall conditions of detention. In cooperation with the authorities, it will refurbish kitchen and sanitation facilities, and upgrade water supply systems," the ICRC said in a statement.
"It will work to prevent transmission of communicable disease and make sure that detainees receive the treatment they require in event of any outbreak of disease such as cholera ... The ICRC will work with the authorities to ensure that improvements achieved in the food situation inside prisons are maintained."
The ICRC is appealing for more than US$18 million in funding for its prison feeding programme, as well as projects to provide agricultural inputs to about 63,000 people in the provinces of Mashonaland Central and Mashonaland East, who have been living in extreme poverty since the election violence in 2008, and for financing medical clinics in the capital.