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Sunday, 13 February 2011

Barriers to Justice (Crowded Prisons), 2nd Edition

Some interesting reports focusing on Zambia's overcrowded prisons.

Early last month we had the annoucement that Zambia's prison overcrowding now stands at 250%. According to the Zambia Prisons Service commissioner, Percy Chato, the government's strategy is to ease congestion through greater releases via the parole system. The only problem is that with such staggering overcrowding  and poor resources, you either let all criminals out or you keep up with the inhumane conditions.

The Human Rights Commission recently noted that overcrowding is leading to the problem of sodomy because prisoners sleep close to each other. According to the the HRC part of the problem is the “53 prisons that we have in this country were built with some punitive aspect in mind…to humiliate you...” That overcrowding leads to rape and general poor health conditions is well established. Deputy commissioner of the Prison Service Dr. Chisela Musonda recently suggested that 63 percent of inmates in Zambian prisons are infected with HIV/AIDS. That clearly is much higher than the general prevalence rate of the population and can only be attributed to rampant rape and other activities.

It does not appear that the government has no credible prisons policy apart from limited TB programmes. It recently launched a US$1 million programme  to improve screening, diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis infection in Zambia’s prisons. The problem of course remains that there are very few dedicated health facilities in our prisons. Out of 86 prisons only 15 have clinics.

The big problem with congestion is definitely infrastructural. We need to build more prisons and actually get the private sector more involved. But the other problem is the courts. 35% of our prisoners may actually not be criminals at all! They are there on remand. The slow pace of the justice system is therefore largely to blame for the congestion as thousands remain in custody waiting for their cases to be disposed of.  According to the Prisons Care and Counseling Association (PRISCCA)  there are over 6,000 inmates waiting for their cases to be disposed of. The only way this can be resolved is through speeding up trial and improving bail enforcement to allow for fewer remandees.

PRISCCA for its part would like to see more use of  non-custodial sentences for certain offences to reduce the numbers of people sent to prison. At present there's no legal instrument that compels judges, magistrates and presiding justices to impose non-custodial sentences such as community service. But community service is only useful if trials can actually be processed.

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