The view from the bottom of the bottom

The way they used to pack slaves in the ship, that is how we sleep.
– Kenneth, 37, Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison, September 30, 2009

This week I have been trying to digest a remarkable report from Human Rights Watch on the state of Zambia’s prisons. During the last 18 months they managed to  interview prisoners in six facilities across the country and the picture they paint is no less shocking for perhaps its tragically predictable state:

A couple of statistics to put things in perspective:

  1. Number of people in Zambia’s prisons = 15,000
  2. Number of people Zambia’s prisons were designed for = 5,500
  3. Number of physicians dedicated to Zambia’s prisons = 1

As an example, Lusaka central prison built in 1920 for 200 inmates is now home to over 1,100. Conditions are so bad that inmates must take turns to stand, sit and lie down in order to try and grab even the smallest amount of rest. There is a constant lack of food with almost all prisoners subsisting on one poor quality meal a day – a dark irony as many prisons are based on farms which produce vegetables for sale to generate income for the state. This complete lack of basic services forces vulnerable inmates to trade their only resource, sex, for food and basic clothing.

As one might imagine, the health situation in these facilities is beyond horrific. Basic sanitation and hygiene is singularly lacking and the rates of HIV are far higher than in the population at large. Given the complete ban on condoms in the face of  high rates of both consensual sex and rape, it is unsurprising that many more inmates leave facilities infected with HIV and other diseases than when they arrive. TB is of particular concern with the high levels of immuno-compromised individuals packed into densely crowded cell blocks leading to very high rates of infection and mortality from this treatable disease.

The captains are police in the cells—what they do in the cells, I don’t know.  Sometimes they do punish their friends in their cells—I don’t know how they do it. They have their own court, without the officers involved.
– Officer in charge, Mumbwa Prison, October 5, 2009

As with so many of Zambia’s government services, prisons are under staffed and so authority for maintaining discipline, particularly at night, is delegated to prisoners who act as cell captains. Within this role they are free to decide who to punish and who to reward with especially harsh treatment meted out to fellow inmates suspected of sodomy.

In the men’s blocks, prisoners who fall foul of their guards or cell captains are sent to the penal block where they are stripped and placed in a cell of 1×2 metres. Water is then added to ankle height and depending upon their transgression, the inmate must stand or sit in dark confinement in this fetid water for anything up to 3 or 4 weeks. In the women’s blocks, punishments can include stripping prisoners, covering them in mud and forcing them to sit in the baking heat of the Zambian day until night falls.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics unearthed by the report is that 37% of those in Zambian penal system are on remand. Due to the chronic lack of staff and capacity within the justice system as a whole over one third are therefore still awaiting their day in court.

It is very hard to know what to say about this Dickensian situation. It goes without saying that each and every aspect of these degradations (and there are many more in the report) are in direct contradiction to the multiple charters on human and prisoner rights that Zambia has signed up to. Yet there are many in Zambia who are forced to live lives that are squalid and without basic services and it should probably not come as any kind of surprise that the prison service is in perhaps the worst state of them all.

When day to day life is such a struggle for so many ordinary Zambians, should we be surprised that this report has generated only very limited comment in the country itself? I am sure that if we were to dig up a report from a visit to a British prison in the 1850’s for historical comparison, we would hear very similar stories and a similar silent indifference from the public at large. Heck, we might not even have to travel back in time!

Is it OK to accept such horrors as being merely symptomatic of the state broader woes? I would be particularly grateful if some of my Zambian friends and readers could provide some perspective on all of this.

I can only conclude that we all remain human beings, whether guilty of a charge meriting incarceration or not (and for 37% of Zambian inmates we don’t even know that). To hear these stories is yet one more grim reminder (as if it were needed) of how bad things can be at the bottom and how much worse again at the bottom of the bottom.

I wish I had more to offer, I don’t… I just felt it was important to share.


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