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Children behind bars - prison conditions in Zimbabwe
Rodrick Mukumbira
October, 2001

Prison conditions continue to worsen as children barely a year old accompany their mothers to serve jail terms. The prisons are, to say the least, inhuman, intolerable and a grave violation of children rights.

Rudo, Shona for love, is just like any other one-year-old. Her hair is plaited with pretty red and white ribbons that march her floral dress. Rudo is wearing shoes and socks that complete a picture of a cute toddler, a perfect contender for a baby competition.

The only abnormality is Rudo's home. Four high, stark white walls make up the little girl's world and she may only discover what lies behind in six months' time when her grand mother comes to collect her.

Rudo is one of the many children currently incarcerated together with their mothers in Zimbabwean prisons. However, statistics are not available from the country's Prison Department to show how many children are in prison with their parents.

Frankie Meki, the Department of Prisons' spokesperson, contends that the number of children in prisons is escalating. At Mlondolozi Prison, in the outskirts of Bulawayo, where Rudo's mother is serving, there are 11 toddlers who are serving sentences together with their mothers.

Like her peers, Mlondolozi Prison is the only home Rudo knows. She does not even know that she has four siblings outside who are staying with the grandmother. And when she leaves it will be a long time before she sees her mother. "I still have eight years to go in my sentence," Maria, her mother, told AFRICANEWS. "Though my mother may not look after her as I would, I have no choice but to let her grow up in a free world."

Maria is serving a 10-year sentence for culpable homicide after she killed Rudo's father whom she said was abusive.

Mlondolozi is mainly a mental facility for female prisoners who are committed pending psychiatric review. Mlondolozi caters for women incarcerated for various crimes ranging from pick pocket to murder. The youngest of the children is only three weeks. She was born in prison and will have to stay with her mother until she is weaned or old enough to leave.

The oldest child is two years and he is lucky that before the turn of the year he may see the other side as his mother is leaving prison in November. His mother says she was arrested for prostitution and hopes to change her lifestyle when released.

But thanks to Red Cross, she has been able to complete a first aid course while serving her one-year sentence. She had to be sentenced to one year because she had been picked up on several other occasions.

Prison regulations stipulate that children may be released into the custody of relatives or the Department of Social Welfare once they attain the age of two. But given the fact that the concept of extended families is now a thing of the past in Zimbabwe, that is a pipe dream. The Department of Social Welfare's revenues and children's homes are stretched to the limit because of the influx of HIV/AIDS orphaned children hence the only option would be to remove them into the care of willing relatives, if any.

But some are waiting to see the other world when their mothers are finally free to leave. "We only wish the government would give us other forms of punishment rather than imprisoning us together with our children," says Nancy Kachingwe, a mother of a 16 months old boy who is serving four years for house breaking. "We cannot impose our children on relatives because we also understand that things are not that rosy out there." She says that given an option, she would rather serve community service and look after her child.

"I have no clothes for my baby," says Thenjiwe Ncube, the mother of a three weeks old baby. "I only have one napkin and there is no where I can get clothes for her."

Prison Officer, Lethiwe Ndiweni, says the situation is sometimes tense that officers find themselves donating clothes to these prison mothers and their baby "prisoners". "There are no provisions for baby clothes here."

The situation is somewhat bad in winter where the children have to cuddle in the few blankets with their mothers. While the prison offers medical facilities for the young "prisoners" and ensures that their growth is monitored and that they are immunised, Officer Ndiweni says there is no facility for a nursery hence the use of a part of the courtyard.

11 mothers share a cell meant for four inmates and there are no separate sleeping arrangements for babies. "It would be ideal if the children could sleep in cots separately from us," laments an inmate, adding that the children have to contend with the same blankets provided for adults, which are not ideal for their tender skin.

The children also have to withstand Zimbabwe's prisons, which have been classified as "death traps" because of the presence of dangerous diseases such as tuberculosis.

To cater for the presence of children in prison the prison department has however, been able to provide more soap to mothers. The inmates say they are given soap twice a month and this is enough to meet their children's needs. The mothers also confirms that they are provided with adequate food to meet their children's nutrition needs as the children are served porridge with peanut butter and they also get milk from the prison's dairy.

Prisons' spokesperson, Meki, however, asserts that when the prisons were built there were no facilities to cater for inmates with children but the need has now been identified. "We are constrained by the budget. At the moment we are still more concerned with solving the problem of overcrowding," he says.

Of all the nine prisons in Zimbabwe, only Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare, has a nursery which Meki says was funded by donors who were touched by the plight of children behind bars.

Zimbabwe's prisons have a capacity of 16 000 inmates but at the moment they have over 22 000 inmates. The Prisons' budget has been deteriorating in recent years, from US$9,09 million in the 99/2000 financial year to US$7,62 million in the 2000/1 financial year.

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