It is indisputable that virtually every sector of the economy has been groaning under the pangs of the decade-and-half economic penury that continues to ravage the country. It is public knowledge that the health sector, for instance, is gasping for breath.
State hospitals, oftentimes, have gone without water. The economic morass has even resulted in maternal units operating under dim candle light. Local authorities across the country have been struggling to deliver services against a backcloth of failure by residents to pay rates. Top-drawer delivery from councils cannot be easy; even the government itself is struggling to keep its head above water. It is always easy for critics to apportion blame, but the truth of the matter is that both individual and organisational survival has become something of a herculean task. The prevailing harsh economic climate has been unsparing. The same sad state of affairs can be seen across every other sector; the banking industry would have its own horrors to tell just as the agricultural sector would recount how the economy has adversely impacted projected output in the last 15 years.
Now, given the magnitude of the economic crunch, it is likely that everyone is preoccupied with personal or organisational survival. Self-preservation becomes instinctive in times like these. However, despite the gargantuan economic disaster hampering national progress, it must be mentioned that it has become incumbent upon authorities to urgently look into the plight of prisoners. There can be no doubt that the state of Zimbabwean prisons is at serious odds with constitutional provisions, particularly section 48, which emphasises human dignity for prisoners. Reports that continue pouring in from local prisons should profoundly touch our hearts. Tendai Biti, who is representing death row inmates, equated the conditions obtaining in the overcrowded prisons to hell.
It was Nelson Mandela who aptly noted: “The best way to judge a State is by looking at how it treats its prisoners.” It is hard to ignore the enormity of the inhuman conditions in prisons if we have hearts of flesh beating within our chests. We need to do away with the as-long-as-I-am-not-affected mentality. Let’s spare a thought for the caged. We all know how the Bible, in general, and the name of God, in particular, has carried sacredness since time immemorial. Our ingrained moral compasses, whether we are religionists or non-religious people, have been attuned to treat with reverence the sacred things that relate to God.
It would have been unthinkable, in fact, it would have been something of an anathema for anyone to tear just a corner of a page from the Bible in years gone by. Many would remember how it was inculcated in us as children that the Bible was the voice of God, that it was God speaking in print. Furthermore, that the Bible is used to bind the conscience of people testifying in courts of law speaks volumes of its place and value in both our social and legal lives.
It can only be surprising, perhaps astounding, that anyone would dare pluck a whole page from the Bible to use as toilet paper. It befuddles the mind. It’s appalling. Reports continuously filtering from prisons indicate that this is the unpalatable reality in Zimbabwean prisons: The sacred book has become toilet paper. What nerve! We once heard Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services spokesperson, Elizabeth Banda advising relatives of inmates at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison to supply their loved ones with toilet paper because of critical shortage. It’s a grim state of affairs. Do we occupy ourselves with casting blame on the prisoners for the “heinous” act of abusing the Bible? Who really should shoulder blame? I think apportioning blame does not help the situation in the long run, but it must be emphasised that an abrupt end to this practice is needed. It is rather better to hear that the prison services has failed to settle a debt to a manufacturers of tissue rolls than to hear that the Holy Book has become the prison toilet paper. This is an appeal to the powers-that-be to attend judiciously to this area of our justice system, which is crying for attention. What does it say about us as a people if we cannot give human dignity to vulnerable people in captivity?
Prisoners have to go for weeks without toilet paper, thus creating a breeding ground of plucking from the Holy Book bequeathed by well-meaning persons. The allocations for soap and other detergents is far below the required amounts. Also, it is cited that prisoners have to go for weeks without bathing soap. Add this to the unavailability of water and we have the fertile recipe for disease outbreaks. Surely, someone ought to treat this issue with the urgency it deserves as much as we acknowledge the tough macro-economic environment.
What is currently obtaining in prisons is unacceptable and a clear violation of the constitutional rights of prisoners.
lLearnmore Zuze is a legal researcher, author and media analyst. He writes here in his own capacity. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org