A visit by Zambia's vice president to the country's only maximum security prison gave the nation a glimpse of worsening conditions for those behind bars. The government says it will act to improve the situation.
Zambia's Vice President Guy Scott has been on a fact-finding mission to see for himself what conditions in Zambian prisons are like. They have been described by international human rights groups as among the worst in Africa.
During his visit Scott said he was shocked to discover that a prison cell, originally built to accommodate one inmate, now holds up to 15 prisoners with little fresh air circulating. This results in rampant outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis and scabies.
It's not just overcrowding that is a problem. The spokesperson for the country's Human Rights Commission, Samuel Kasanka, said prisoners also need to be treated with dignity.
"If you look at the type of food that they eat, there are serious questions about whether all prisons provide prisoners with a balanced diet," Kasanka said. "There is a lot that is not right."
Too many prisoners, too little hope
The Mukobeko maximum security prison in the city of Kabwe in central Zambia has 283 inmates on death row. Most of them have been living with the fear of execution for more than 10 years.
Conditions in Mukobeko are similar to those in other prisons across the country, where inmates are crammed into cells that lack proper sanitation and are fed poor diets. The 53 prisons across the country were built by the British during colonial times. They were designed to house about 5,000 prisoners but now have an estimated 17,000 inmates.
Godfrey Malembeka spent four years in jail, an experience that led him to set up the Prisons Care and Counselling Association (PRISCA). He said his goal is to bring major change to Zambia's prison system.
"Zambia previously relied on justice focused on retribution," Malembeka said. "What we want to see is to move a step further and follow countries like South Africa, where they focus more on restorative justice."
The search for solutions
The stories of current inmates' trials in Mukobeko maximum security prison still tell a sorry tale. Some inmates here say they have been imprisoned for years for petty crimes like stealing a bar of soap while others are being held in custody although their cases have not even been heard in court.
Many of the problems stem from a lack of government spending on prison facilities. According to Ngosa Simbyakula, Zambia's Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, there are plans afoot for a change of focus.
"We are thinking of changing the name of the Zambia Prisons Service to the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation," Simbyakula told DW. "The word prison focuses on the custodial or punishment aspect of this service but there is a need to rehabilitate prisoners so that they can become useful citizens."
Author: Kathy Sikombe, Zambia / al
Editor: Susan Houlton / sms