…more than 20,000 languishing in jail
ZAMBIA’s top correctional official, Percy Chato, has announced that the country’s prison population has reached a record high of more than 20,000 inmates.
Speaking at the launch of Livingstone Correctional Facility clinic, Zambia Correctional Service Commissioner General Chato revealed that the inmate population had climbed to more than 20,000 against the holding capacity of 8,350, an overcrowding rate of more than 240 percent.
“Overcrowding results in undesirable conditions which impact negatively on the correctional activities,” Mr Chato told the assembled officials, including Home Affairs minister Stephen Kampyongo. “If not controlled, it can bring communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis as well as violate human rights,” he said.
Prisons Care and Counselling Association (PRISCCA) executive director Godfrey Malembeka also confirmed that Zambia’s correctional facilities are heavily congested by people with minor offences.
In an interview with the Daily Nation, Dr. Malembeka suggested that only dangerous convicts should be held in correctional facilities while people with minor offences be subjected to fines, suspended sentences or community service.
He stressed the need to speed up the process of clearing the backlog of remandees and other persons with minor offences in correctional facilities.
“There are over 3,000 remandees in prisons and most of these prisoners are people with minor offences. Government should allocate more money to decentralize the entire criminal justice system in the country,” said Dr. Malembeka.
He advised Government to allocate more funds for the decentralization of the entire criminal justice system in the country, as well as more money be allocated to the Legal Aid Board to recruit more Government lawyers at district level to represent persons with petty cases.
He pointed out that incarceration has been overused in Zambia and that non-custodial options were largely ignored.
Dr. Malembeka also explained that the population of inmates in correctional facilities was high because of
the high number of people waiting to be sentenced.
He said that the number of resident judges in the country was still very low and that inmates were waiting as long as three years to have their cases concluded.
Zambia is infamous for having some of the worst prison overcrowding in the world. In 2010, Human Rights Watch issued a highly critical 135-page report entitled “Unjust and Unhealthy: HIV, TB and Abuse in Zambian Prisons,” which documented the failure of the prison and justice authorities to provide basic nutrition, sanitation and bedding for prisoners.
The report also singled out the criminal justice system for failing to ensure speedy trials and appeals, and to make use of non-custodial alternatives.
Speaking of the report, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said: “Zambian prisoners are starved, packed into cells unfit for human habitation, and face beatings at the hands of certain guards or fellow inmates.
‘‘Children, pregnant women, pre-trial detainees and convicted criminals are condemned to brutal treatment and are at serious risk of drug-resistant TB and HIV infection.”
At the time, Human Rights Watch called on Government to make immediate improvements in prison conditions, particularly the provision of medical care and criminal justice in order to protect public health and respect human rights.
With the recent announcement by Minister Kampyongo of new health facilities to be constructed at correctional facilities, at least some measures are finally being taken to improve prisoner health.
Another area of concern is drug policy. The Drug Enforcement Commission is currently responsible for a significant portion of arrests in Zambia.
According to their own statistics, DEC has caged over 15,000 people for non-violent drug offences in the past three years, mostly for cannabis. This represents an average of 15 people caged every single day.
It is estimated that more than one in four inmates is incarcerated for cannabis offences. Those arrested for drugs are almost always poor and vulnerable Zambians who otherwise pose no threat to society.