Read, Debate: Engage.

Hope For Zambian Prisoners As Former Inmate Moves To State House

October 02, 2021
topic:Good Governance
tags:#Africa, #prison, #death penalty, #democracy
by:Cyril Zenda
The election of Hakainde Hichilema, a regular prison inmate to President, in August has raised hopes of improvement for Zambia’s “inhuman” jails.

On 2 September, Zambia’s new president, Hakainde Hichilema, took the southern African nation by surprise when he appointed Kuyomba Bwalya, a junior prisons officer, to the post of deputy commissioner general of the Zambia Correctional Services with a brief to thoroughly reform the country’s prison system.

Hichilema and Bwalya had come to know each other when the now president was a prisoner at the country’s notorious Mukobeko Maximum Prison after being charged with treason under the autocratic rule of former president Edgar Lungu.

“Under difficult circumstances and quite oppressive regime, he tried very hard to act professionally,” Hichilema said of his former jailer, a conduct that had impressed the president into appointing Bwalya when it was time to remember the sorry plight of the thousands of prisoners that he had shared cells with in the 15 times that he was arrested on his arduous road to the State House.

Inhumane Prison Conditions

On 20 July, 2017, when Hichilema - along with five colleagues with whom he faced trumped-up treason charges arising from allegedly obstructing a presidential motorcade - marked 100 days in prison, he took to his Facebook Page to share his views about the country’s prison conditions.

“We know how much you worry about our conditions inside Mukobeko Maximum and other prisons around the country,” Hichilema said in the post directed at his supporters. “You have every reason to worry because the conditions we are in are inhuman and need to be quickly addressed as a matter of priority, not because Hakainde is here, but because there are human beings living in these atrocious conditions.” 

“We believe that regardless of the crimes these inmates committed, they need to be treated in a humane manner and in accordance with local and international conventions regarding the treatment of people and respect for human rights,” Hichilema continued. “It is even worse for some of us who are still searching for answers as to what crime we committed, but already being punished under these inhuman conditions.”

These harrowing prison experiences during his repeated arrests caused the new president to remember the plight of his former cellmates and order the immediate improvement of condition of all prisons in Zambia in order to make them humane and truly correctional facilities.

Analysts say this is an ambitious project that will involve a revamp of the country’s justice system that has seen some people detained for many years without trial as well as the setting of the country’s human rights record that had deteriorated under the watch of former president Lungu.

As Lungu’s government became unpopular over the worsening economic situation compounded by a huge debt burden, it became increasingly repressive, a situation that caused human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) to repeatedly call the regime to order.

Order For Reform Applauded

The Prisons Care and Counselling Association (PRISCCA), a non-governmental organisation that works to alleviate the plight of prisoners in Zambia, applauded the move by the new government to ensure speedy access to justice for inmates and suspects in the country’s correctional facilities and police cells.

PRISCCA’s executive director, Godfrey Malembeka, said the strong pronouncement by the President Hichilema conformed with the country’s Criminal Procedure Code Section 33 on suspects being held in police cells for only 24 hours before being presented to court. 

“His pronouncements on the need for police to give bond and the judicial system granting bail where there is no security or flight risk should be applauded by all well-meaning Zambians,” Malembeka said. “It is a very timely message that will alleviate congestion in the correctional facilities countrywide where out of the current 23,000-plus inmates, the country has a backlog of about 4,000 inmates awaiting court appearance.”

Malembeka told FairPlanet that there are many factors that contribute to the huge backlog, with a centralised judicial system that relies on court circuiting being the main factor, followed by low sentencing powers for magistrates, arrests based on insufficient evidence and lack of access to legal aid.

“One of the main issues we have been advocating for is the decentralisation of the criminal justice system,” Malembeka told FairPlanet. “Currently in Zambia, only four provinces have resident judges while the other provinces rely on court circuiting. This creates a backlog of cases that need to wait for court circuiting before they are heard in six provinces.”

Malembeka said that because most of the cases that magistrates preside over require the High Court to pass or confirm sentences there is congestion in the country’s 90 prisons, which he said suffer from inadequate food supplies, shortages in potable water and poor ventilation. 

“Currently, the Zambian system has many remandees whose matters are not being heard by any court after their matter is committed to the High Court from the subordinate court,” he said. “Others are still remanded in custody waiting only for the High Court to pronounce their sentence. Sadly, juveniles have not been spared. Their matters are heard by the Subordinate Court but confirmation of their reformatory orders to go to an approved school may take long. This has led to some juveniles remaining in remand facilities for extended periods.”

‘Hell On Earth’

According to some media reports, the over 400 death row prisoners in Zambia are housed in the ‘Condemn Section’ of Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison in the central city of Kabwe. 

This section of the prison has a design capacity for only 48 inmates but has to carry about ten times its capacity, a situation that forces inmates to take turns to sleep. It is a sad situation that former Vice President Dr. Guy Scott, described as  “hell on earth,” after he toured the facility a few years ago.

Decentralisation Of Justice System Suggested

Malembeka suggested that the country’s criminal justice system should be decentralised. 

“This way, matters will be concluded by the courts expeditiously. Specifically, sentencing powers of magistrates should be increased from the current nine-year ceiling. This will allow them to convict and sentence. The Subordinate Courts, which preside over matters of juveniles, should be allowed to sign confirmation orders. Further, judges should be resident in all provinces.”

He added that other reforms that are necessary include the deployment of magistrates to all provinces, the construction of more and modern prison facilities “that uphold human dignity” and the need for magistrates to make more use of non-custodial options.

Hope rises that Zambia Complies With UN Mandela Rules

HRW director for Southern Africa, Dewa Mavhinga, whose organisation has in the past produced a damning report on life conditions in Zambian jails, commended the move by President Hichilema to improve the facilities.  

“Measures by Zambia’s new President to improve prison conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic should be commended,” Mavhinga told FairPlanet. 

“Prisons are often unsanitary, overcrowded and have no running water in cells for detainees to comply with hygiene practices,” he added. “The measures introduced by Hichilema will go a long way to ensure that Zambia complies with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) which state that prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care available in the community.”

Image by: Grant Durr

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
Zambia's President Hakainde Hichilema order the immediate improvement of condition of all prisons in Zambia.
Call to Action
Abolish Zimbabwe's death penalty
Support now