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Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Zambia's Prison Congestion

Congestion at Mongu central prison has worsened with 527 prisoners sharing 180 bed spaces. This scenario has made the inmates to devise a rota system of sleeping on the available thin mattresses after every hour.

The Human Rights Commission says the lack of bed space and beddings for prisoners is an infringement of their human rights. It has called on Government to build an ultra modern prison in Mongu district in-order to deal with the issue of congestion as the district given its rapid expansion. As well consider relocating the prison away from the township area to a secluded location.

Can't someone sue the Government for failing to fulfil its legal obligations? Or is there a law that allows Government to treat human beings like animals? What is wrong with us? There's no reason why a normal society should allow such things to continue.

In terms of broader policy, Zambia continues to suffer from significant underinvestment in prison capacity. Overcrowding in our prisons is currently at 210%. Very little prison capacity has been delivered since the colonial era.

The Government does not know how to deal with this situation. It's policy so far has consisted of only a small prison in New Mwembeshi (600 inmates) and rampant prison amnesties. Since PF came into power it has released over 4,000 criminals on our streets on Africa Freedom and Independence days.

But how many criminals can one release to solve the problem? It is not a sustainable solution. Government needs to use the little money it has properly. What is the point of building a football stadium in Mongu when people are living in a deplorable prison nearby? Poor policy priorities are killing our people.

But even without additional capacity we are not doing well. We need to get remand down! 1 in 3 prisoners are presumed innocent and being held on remand. If we can reduce on that through more efficient court processes we can reduce on remand. The recent ramp up in court capacity should be put to effective use. We are not doing that at all!

Also we need to row back on custodial sentences. There many custodial sentences which are churned out for minor offences like stealing a cob of maize, petty thieving, and bouncing cheques. Its clearly 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 defined as crimes in the first place rather than civil offences.

There's also need for a serious "rehabilitation agenda". Our prisons exist only as places of punishment instead of also being centres of rehabilitation. We need more projects designed to help get prisoners back to school or learn new skills as part of helping re-integration back into society. This helps reduce re-offending in the long term.

Chola Mukanga | Economist
Copyright © Zambian Economist 2013


  1. Thank you Chola for drawing attention to this horror against humanity. Prior to independence we had less than 1,000 prisoners; now in the same facilities there are 17,000, With more than 50 percent of the population living in urban areas, no longer does society seek justice through traditional mechanisms of social equilibrium. In the first year of the new PF government the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012 report summarises the situation,

    Serious human rights abuses occurred during the year. The most important were abuses by security forces, including unlawful killings, torture, and beatings; life-threatening prison conditions; and restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and association. Other serious human rights problems included arbitrary arrest, prolonged pretrial detention, arbitrary interference with privacy, government corruption, violence and discrimination against women, child abuse, trafficking in persons, discrimination against person with disabilities and based on sexual orientation, restriction on labor rights, forced labor, and child labor. The government generally did not take steps to prosecute or punish officials who committed abuses, and impunity remained a problem.

    In April 2012, of 17,000 prisoners, 5,000 were pre-trial detainees, three percent of which were women who could ‘choose to have their infants and children under the age of four with them’, three percent juvenile, held with convicted prisoners, all of them fed one meal a day of mielie-meal and beans.

  2. bad Zambia's image and reputation...


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