Every couple of weeks, inmates at Harare Central and Chikurubi prisons in Zimbabwe greet the arrival of bakery trucks with roars of approval, whistles and dancing. The trucks’ arrival signals a rare few days of bread to relieve a prison diet that is sparse and monotonous.
"The bread is in fact condemned [rejected] by the bakery, but it still brings joy to prisoners because it is some of the best food they ever get behind those walls," said Kerina Dehwa, a former prisoner who recently spent more than a year at Chikurubi Female Prison, about 15km east of the capital Harare, awaiting trial.
She was among 21 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party who were accused of murdering a senior police officer. All but five of them were recently acquitted by the Harare High Court.
“Whenever the trucks came, the prison wardens selected loaves that were still in good condition, packed them in boxes and took them home, leaving us with the bad ones,” she told IRIN.
The bread was then doled out over two or three days, by the end of which it was mouldy. After that, the inmates reverted to the usual 10am breakfast of black tea and a sugarless, watery porridge.
Former prisoners told IRIN that the only other meal of the day, served at 2pm, usually consisted of a small portion of sadza - a thick maize meal porridge - served with boiled green vegetables or weevil-infested beans.
Little support for prisons
Zimbabwe has 40 prisons, most of them small, accommodating an estimated 17,000 prisoners in total.
Humanitarian organizations and human rights activists blame the paucity and poor quality of prison food on the general underfunding of correctional facilities, an absence of political will and government interference with NGOs attempting to support prisoners.
"The food situation in prisons is horrible and it is getting worse," Douglas Mwonzora, a former MDC member of parliament and past chairman of the parliamentary committee on justice and legal affairs, told IRIN.
He added that the formation of a government of national unity in early 2009 had slightly improved prison conditions, at a time when an average of 20 prisoners were dying daily, according to the Zimbabwe Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO). Also in 2009, ZACRO and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stepped in to provide additional food and water to inmates.
However, ICRC and ZACRO stopped giving help to prisoners in 2011. ICRC said it was withdrawing support because the food situation in Zimbabwe had improved, while ZACRO said its resources were depleted. A lawyer with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Tawanda Zhuwarara, however, told IRIN that the withdrawal "reflected growing tension between the Justice Minister - Patrick Chinamasa - and non-governmental organizations."
ZANU-PF overwhelmingly won elections held in July this year after an unhappy four-year partnership with two factions of the MDC, which had been assigned mainly social service and financial portfolios, although correctional services had remained under the control of ZANU-PF's Chinamasa.
Mwonzora said improved food security had not benefited prisons, which continued to receive inadequate food supplies.
"It is all about resources and poor policy decisions by the government, which has all along failed to release money to improve prison conditions while ZPS [Zimbabwe Prison Services] is also crippled as it lacks resources to feed the inmates,” he told IRIN.
A Masvingo-based prison warden, who declined to be identified, said: "We have six farms across the country, but there is hardly any production taking place there. The farms could go a long way in feeding prisoners, using prisoners’ labour, but equipment is broken down and we have no farming experts."
Mwonzora confirmed that prison authorities could not fully utilise the farms because they lacked money for inputs as well as expertise.
Edson Chiota, ZACRO’s chief executive officer, told IRIN the justice ministry was just "paying lip service to the plight of prisoners. The parent ministry [the justice ministry] has hardly demonstrated the will to improve prisoners' conditions and has done nothing meaningful. Despite our calls, it has failed to release money to buy food, clothing and other needed resources to make prison life humane".
Zhuwarara, a human rights activist and senior litigation lawyer at the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, blamed poor conditions in prisons on government’s attitude towards inmates.
"Prisons are grossly underfunded and neglected because there is a widespread view among authorities that inmates are supposed to be punished rather than rehabilitated. That is why, since independence in 1980, hardly any more prisons have been built. The manner in which the prisoners are being treated is unconstitutional; the constitution stipulates that they are supposed to be treated with dignity, yet this is not the case," Zhuwarara told IRIN.
The acute lack of food in prisons has spawned corruption and sexual abuse among inmates and prison wardens, according to John Moyo*, another former MDC inmate.
"Prisoners trade whatever they would have brought to jail with the wardens, who then bring them food to the cells. In some cases, the wardens are given money to smuggle in food from relatives of the inmates, but all this is not allowed by prison regulations," he told IRIN.
Moyo, who was incarcerated at both Harare Central and Chikurubi prisons, said prison authorities barred visitors from giving inmates cooked food, saying they feared it might lead to the spread of diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
He added that some prisoners, particularly those who have already been tried and sentenced, resorted to having sex with fellow inmates in exchange for food and cigarettes smuggled in by the wardens or relatives.
"The victims were mostly young men who were abused because of the hunger in prisons. My worry is that many of them might have contracted HIV," he said.
He described the prisons as “death traps”, claiming he had seen many inmates die of disease and malnutrition.
Cells were overpopulated and often contaminated with sewage, and inmates suffering from communicable diseases were kept together with those who were healthy.
In 2011, following visits to five facilities, the parliamentary committee on human rights released a report condemning prison conditions. The report noted that "lack of toiletries, ablution facilities and the unavailability of water for a long time at some prisons were disturbing" and that "prisoners' diets needed to be improved".
*not his real name