ZAMBIANS need to pay attention to sentiments by the Prisons Care and Counselling Association {PRISCCA} that the high legal fees charged by private lawyers in the country are partly responsible for the notoriously high congestion in our prisons which borders on human rights violation.

To make matters worse 70 percent of the 20,000 prisoners in the Zambian prison system are young people between the ages of 18 and 35. Most of these are remanded or serving sentences for minor offences related to theft of petty items, offences usually driven by the urge to survive in these harsh economic times.

Recently a Lusaka Magistrates Court sentenced a Grade 8 pupil of Kalingalinga to four months simple imprisonment for stealing three flash discs and some money from a market.

It is obvious that most of these petty crimes are driven by poverty, unemployment, peer pressure and other social ills which many of these youths find themselves in.

We agree with Dr. Godfrey Malembeka, the Executive Director of PRISCCA and a seemingly lone voice in the campaign to better the conditions of prisons and inmates that the majority of these young people would not have been behind bars if they had money to pay for legal services. 

The majority of these, including the Grade 8 pupil, were supposed to be sent to a reformatory to cool off and learn how to behave. By the time they graduated from Katombora they would have drastically reformed and on their way to becoming useful members of society again.

Many of these young offenders did not deserve to be jailed. They could have been warned and discharged.  But because they had no legal representation to mitigate on their behalf or put their charges in the proper perspective, they were regarded by courts as hardcore criminals who deserved to be put away for a long time.

The tragedy of the Zambian justice system is that our lawyers have no sympathy for anyone without money to pay for their services. The Law Association of Zambia is often regarded by ordinary Zambians as an exclusive club of rich and learned men whose services are beyond the wildest dreams and hopes of a juvenile offender.

And yet 95 percent of these learned gentlemen and women were beneficiaries of Zambia’s free education system from Grade 1 right through to university. Society expects them to pay back for this generosity by taking on assignments that benefit the less privileged in society such as representing free of charge citizens who find themselves in conflict with the law. 

They cannot pretend that they do not know the plight of their brothers and sisters who are shepherded into prisons on flimsy violations of the law because they are poor and ignorant.

It is about time LAZ fulfilled their mandate of defending hapless citizens who badly deserve their services.    

Although the Legal Aid Board was set up by an Act of Parliament to defend the weak and defenceless in our society, it is seriously incapacitated by lack of funds to travel around the country, shortage of manpower and indeed many Zambians are ignorant about its existence and the services it offers.

With 20,000 inmates crammed into holding cells designed for 8,000 prisoners, the situation in our prisons is fast approaching a national crisis. It calls for concerted efforts by all concerned to ensure that the State does not abuse the human rights of the citizens it is supposed to reform.