A Zimbabwean government minister has admitted to the dire conditions being experienced by the country's 14,000 prisoners.
"Economic hardships are hitting hardest inside prisons," justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, a member of President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, recently told parliament.
"There are no uniforms; food requirements are not being met. We are required to meet a statutory diet but it is not being complied with; rations for prisoners are not being supplied due to inadequate funding. We have recorded malnutrition cases."
Chinamasa's admission comes a few days before the broadcast on South African television of an investigative documentary programme showing images of prisoners reminiscent of the worst of the continent's famines.
The Special Assignment documentary "Hell Hole", was secretly filmed and graphically illustrates conditions in two of Zimbabwe's 55 prisons, showing emaciated inmates surviving on a daily handful of sadza, or maize-meal porridge, the staple food.
The programme will be broadcast on 31 March 2009.
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.
High court judge Nicholas Ndou said after a recent tour of prison complexes, where he witnessed juvenile and adult prisoners incarcerated together, that there "were prisoners suffering from skin diseases such as pellagra, and respiratory diseases. Several corpses were placed in a room for several days and were in an advanced stage of decomposition."
Pellagra is a disease caused by a lack of vitamins and proteins.
Chinamasa denied that cholera, which has killed more than 4,000 Zimbabweans since August 2008, had broken out in the prisons, although he admitted there were incidents of dysentery.
Prisoner officers, who declined to be identified, told IRIN that cholera was rampant in the prisons because water infrastructure had collapsed.
Prison gardens looted
Previously, prisoners would cultivate food gardens and practice animal husbandry, but "senior politicians started taking free prison labour for use on their own farms, resulting in production going down. In some instances, implements on prison farms were looted by senior politicians," prison officers told IRIN.
Photo: Special Assignment
|Surviving on sadza|
Chinamasa informed parliament that "We are working on a feeding scheme. Zimbabwe Prison Services seeks to mobilize material to increase farm produce at its farms for nutritional support to inmates." The arrest and detention of Roy Bennett, the Movement for Democratic Change's proposed deputy minister of agriculture, highlighted the dire conditions experienced by the 14,000 prisoners in the nation’s jails.
On his release, Bennett told local media: "There are gross human rights abuses behind those walls ... Five people died while I was inside and it took the prison officers four to five days to remove the bodies. The situation behind there is pathetic."