Zambia's Scott shocked by state of prison

2012-05-21 10:28
Kabwe - Zambia's vice president Guy Scott was dumbfounded. The first top official to visit the Mukobeko maximum-security prison since independence in 1964, Scott did not like what he saw.

"We have to find a solution because this is hell on earth," said the vice president after touring the death row section of the prison.

Located in Kabwe district, in Central Province - about 150km outside the capital Lusaka - the conditions at the prison are wretched.

In the men's section, which is the worst part, an invasive stench strikes every inmate, warden and visitor. The odour is a mix of unwashed people and chamber pots in need of being emptied.

Upon arriving, Scott was informed that the prison had undergone a massive clean-up operation. His entourage wondered what the place looked like before being sanitised for the top official.

Overcrowding is rampant. The death row section of Mukobeko has 281 prisoners, but its official holding capacity is just 48. Up to eight inmates can be packed into a cell meant for one lone prisoner.

"Even if you did not believe in God, when you are brought here, you can never go back to your old life, because life here is bad," says Benjamin Miti, who has been on death row since 1993, awaiting his appeal in a murder case.

Zambia has not executed anyone since 1997, owing to a presidential moratorium that has been upheld by three consecutive heads of state.

However, capital punishment is still on the books for grave offences, such as murder and aggravated robbery. While the condemned are not killed, they still wait on death row, never sure what exactly will happen.

Slow justice system

Now 43 years old and having spent about half of his life in jail, Miti blames a slow justice system for the overcrowding. Prisoners can wait years for their cases to be heard. In some instances, files have gone missing, leaving prisoners trapped in a legal limbo from which they cannot escape.

"My fate is yet to be decided because the Supreme Court, where my appeal case is, has informed us that it is unable to trace my case. So I will have to wait," Miti said. "Imagine, I have lived for 19 years without knowing my fate!"

Zambia's Commissioner of Prisons Percy Chato does not try to whitewash the issues, but says the government is trying to make changes.

"The Prisons Service is going through a lot of problems when it comes to congestion," admits Chato. Since Scott's visit last month, his office has started to work more closely with the judiciary to speed up cases, in an effort to empty the prisons.

Scott himself says there is a need for a total overhaul of the prison system.

"As government, we can't allow the present situation to continue," said Scott, adding that the orders to investigate what was going on in the prison came directly from President Michael Sata.

Built in 1954, when the southern African nation was under British rule, Mukobeko is surrounded by concrete slabs 20m high. Bulbous razor wire stretches across the entire length of the wall.

Little work has been done on the structure since the colonial masters retreated and it is falling into disrepair.

Human rights

Irish-Catholic priest Bernard Bohan has been working in the prison for 23 years.

As he nears retirement and plans to head back to Ireland, Bohan said he became more insistent that a senior government official see the prison. His pushing and prodding helped bring about Scott's visit.

"I was there when the last eight men were being executed, each one of them struggling as they were dying. It [execution] is the most inhumane thing anyone can do to a fellow human being," he said.

Zambia's Human Rights Commission executive director Enoch Mulembe said the government must not only focus on the question of capital punishment, but go further and solve the problem of the conditions at the facility.

"Prisoners do have human rights. They are humans who deserve to be treated in the same way the other members of society are being treated. Incarceration does not mean the end of life," said Mulembe.

The government says it is now considering making partnerships with the private sector in order to get the capital needed to undertake reforms.

- SAPA
Read more on:    guy scott  |  michael sata  |  zambia  |  southern africa
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