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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Barriers to Justice (Crowded Prisons), 4th Edition

Vice President Scott got a rude awakening when he became the highest ranking Government official to visit the deplorable Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison in Kabwe since independence :
“The President heard of the conditions in this death row and he directed me to come to you and report back. Others have had your appeals rejected. We have to find a solution because this is hell on earth. As government, we can’t allow the present situation to continue. IIndeed, the congestion is visible even for the press to see and indeed, that’s not the way it is supposed to be. It is inhuman that a cell where one person is supposed to sleep is occupied by seven people. We know your toilets are in the cell in form of a container, that is surely inhuman...This whole country needs rehabilitation. It has been allowed to deteriorate. The disadvantaged have become more disadvantaged.
In some way, this is not surprising. If the MMD in its rampant greed never cared for the poor, how would it have cared about prisoners? Politicians will only care about prisons if there's a chance they may end up there because the country is built on clear and enforceable laws. MMD saw jails as the avenue for the destitute not for them. Whether much will change remains to be seen. The good news is that it has once again brought prison reform back on the agenda, with the like of Roger Chongwe weighing in :
"Accommodation in these prisons has never been expanded considering the rise in our population. Chimbokaila in Lusaka, that prison was built for a population of Lusaka which had half a million and the same with Maximum Prison in Kabwe…And we are 13 million people in Zambia today and we cannot, with that population, expect to use those prisons which were built at a time when numbers were less than what we have. The solution is to build bigger and modern prison infrastructure so that the inmates are kept there as human beings not as animals as described by the Vice-President that Mukobeko Prison is merely hell on earth."
Chongwe's focus is on the need for larger prison capacity, such as the New Mwembeshi Prison currently under construction.  But helpfully, he also flagged up the need for reforming sentencing. Instead of imposing custodial sentences for minor offences like stealing a cob of maize, petty thievin, its much more effective to impose monetary fines and where they cannot pay, community based sentences should be explored. These ideas of course have "retributive justice" problems. The punishment clearly has to fit the crime and therefore government needs a better criteria for how certain offences are define as crimes in the first place rather than civil offences.

The Human Rights Commission has also helpfully noted the need for a serious look at the "rehabilitation agenda". In their words, "The Commission is greatly concerned that today, Zambian prisons still echo the times when such facilities were viewed as places of punishment instead of being centres for rehabilitation of offenders who would later be integrated back into society after serving their respective sentences".  What they have in mind are initiatives like this donor funded project which is designed to help get prisoners back to school. 

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