A horrifying investigative film, shot undercover in Zimbabwe, has exposed how prisons under President Mugabe have become death camps for thousands of inmates who are deprived of food and medical care.
The documentary, shown last night on South Africa’s state broadcaster SABC, documented the “living hell” for prisoners across 55 state institutions. The result, Hell Hole, was a grim account of a crisis in which dozens of inmates die each day.
Describing the conditions in two of the main prisons in the capital, Harare, in late 2008, a prison officer said: “We have gone the whole year in which–for prisoners and prison officers–the food is hand-to-mouth. They’ll be lucky to get one meal. Sometimes they will sleep without. We have moving skeletons, moving graves. They’re dying.”
The film was made by SABC’s Special Assignment programme and shot over three months with cameras smuggled into the prisons. Reaction in South Africa, where the authorities try to deny the extent of the crisis in its neighbour, is certain to be fierce.
The film showed how prison staff have converted cells and storage rooms to “hospital wards” for the dying and makeshift mortuaries, where bodies “rotted on the floor with maggots moving all around”. They have had to create mass graves within prison grounds to accommodate the dead. In many prisons the dead took over whole cells and competed for space with the living. Prisoners described how the sick and the healthy slept side by side, packed together like sardines, along with those who died in the night.
Prisoners in the film are suffering from slow starvation, nutrition-related illnesses and an array of other diseases to which they are exposed as a result of living in unhygienic conditions.
A former prisoner, a young man, struggled to convey the horror of these conditions: “That place, I haven’t got the words . . . I can describe it as hell on earth–though they say it’s more than hell.” In October last year the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (Zacro) released a report noting that there were 55 prisons in Zimbabwe, with the capacity to hold 17,000 inmates. But in October 2008 it was estimated that more than 35,000 people were in jail.
A report released to accompany the film said that, unlike Zimbabweans on the outside, “inmates can’t beg for food from passers-by, they can’t forage for wild berries in the bush, and they can’t rummage through dustbins for waste food.
“Because of this, Zimbabwe’s prisons constitute a unique and especially cruel form of torture,” said the report compiled by a human rights organisation called Sokwanele, or “Enough is Enough”. The number of deaths from disease in the prisons have risen since the start of the economic decline and political crisis that has gripped the country since the late 1990s.
From 1998 to 2000 the Zimbabwe Prison Service estimated that there were some 300 deaths each year because of disease, with tuberculosis the biggest killer. In May 2004 a senior prison officer reported 15 deaths a week, and a peak of 130 deaths in March of that year, in just one of the prisons in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo.
Since then the crisis has deteriorated greatly as all the country’s services have entered meltdown after Mr Mugabe’s refusal to leave office in the wake of rigged polls.
The Times spent ten days in one of the “better” prisons in Bulawayo last year, surrounded by young skeletal men who fought over small plates of sadza (local maize), and noted severe overcrowding, overflowing toilets, water and electricity cuts, and a lack of blankets and basic commodities such as soap. Those without people on the outside to bring them food face almost certain starvation unless they find another solution, such as resorting to prostitution.
Prison populations also have high rates of HIV/Aids infection, with some reports estimating that more than half of prisoners are HIV-positive. Antiretrovirals are unavailable and the dietary requirements of treatment cannot be met in any case.
There are few drugs for the treatment of tuberculosis and other diseases, and the cramped and filthy conditions ease the transmission of infection. Late last year and early this year a cholera outbreak in Harare’s Central Prison killed four to five prisoners each day, with a peak of 18 deaths in one day, according to prison officers.