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April 30 2010 | ZAMBIA


Report reveals abominable conditions of Kabwe's death row

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The New York Times

Report Calls Zambia’s Prisons ‘Death Traps’


JOHANNESBURG — For punishment, inmates in Zambia’s prisons are commonly stripped naked and held in solitary confinement in small, windowless cells, sometimes for days on end, in ankle-to-calf-high water contaminated with their own excrement, according to a report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch and two African human rights groups.

Prisoners routinely live in overcrowded cells where there is no room to lie down at night, leaving them to sleep in shifts, pressed against one another, according to the report, which describes Zambian prisons as “death traps” beset by overcrowding, malnutrition and rampant disease.

Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison, built in 1950 for a capacity of 400, held 1,731 inmates, the report said. Lusaka Central prison, built in 1923 for 200, contained 1,145 people. Prisoners told investigators that their bodies were “packed like pigs,” “squeezed like logs in a pile,” or “like fish in a refrigerator.”

On a continent afflicted by widespread poverty and fierce competition for government resources, prisons have long been neglected, and prison conditions are often abominable. For the newly released report, human rights researchers visited six prisons in central Zambia and interviewed 246 prisoners and 30 prison officers.

The Zambian Prison Service has recently completed its own internal audit, appointed a new medical director and allowed the human rights workers access to its facilities. The report’s authors credit prison authorities with “a desire and openness to improvement,” and called on the government to institute a range of reforms that would reduce overcrowding, end abusive punishments and improve conditions.

A dozen prison officials and medical workers attended the release of the report in Lusaka on Tuesday. Dr. Chisela Chileshe, who took over as head of Zambia’s prison medical services in September and is the sole doctor for prisons that hold a combined 16,666 inmates, said by that the prison service welcomed the report. It is endeavoring to change a punitive, colonial-era system to a rehabilitative one.

“We don’t have the muscle, the stamina to accomplish this without help from the government itself to increase budget allocations and from donors to come help,” he said.

The researchers found that prisoners were often malnourished because they were not given enough food of nutritional value. Tuberculosis has thrived, and many prisoners are weakened by hunger and exhaustion. It is this disease that has turned a prison term into a death sentence for some, the report said.

Many of those incarcerated have not been convicted of a crime, but have been held, sometimes for years, waiting for their day in court. At Lusaka Central Prison, more than half those incarcerated are awaiting trial. The report described one man who said he was incarcerated for three and a half years before he made an initial appearance before a magistrate. The report advises Zambia to increase the use of bail rather than relying on pretrial detention, which would ease overcrowding and help ensure the innocent are not held for long periods in appalling conditions.

Overworked guards in understaffed prisons have effectively delegated discipline to “cell captains,” inmates who hold their own courts and carry out punishments for violations of prison rules. The hierarchy of inmates encourages violent abuses of power, the report said.

The report likened work conditions for inmates to slave labor. Prisoners are required to work seven days a week for no pay, cell captains beat those seen as working too slowly, and water or toilets are often unavailable. Some inmates are also forced to work on prison officers’ farms.

“The complete unavailability of water for inmates doing hard labor in the hot sun all day is an especially serious health concern,” the report stated.

The Prisons Care and Counseling Association, based in Zambia, and AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, headquartered in Namibia, joined Human Rights Watch in issuing the report.

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