HARARE – Sweeping proposals seeking to reform the prison system have sailed through Cabinet, in a legislative victory that could boost prisoner rehabilitation efforts.
This comes as the country’s 46 prisons are plagued with congestion and shortages of everything from food to uniforms, with prison authorities struggling to feed almost 20 000 inmates due to lack of funding from the government.
The mooted new Prisons Act, whose principles sailed through the executive arm of government on Tuesday, attracted support from virtually all members. President Emmerson Mnangagwa was also said to have supported the iteration of the principles, thereby triggering the process of drafting the Bill.
After its drafting, the Bill will be sent to Parliament for debate, where it is expected to pass, before it reaches Mnangagwa’s desk for a signature. “Cabinet considered a submission on principles for the repeal and subsequent enactment of the new Prisons Act by the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary affairs,” Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services minister Monica Mutsvangwa told a news conference after the Cabinet sitting.
Prison reform advocates are poised to hail the Cabinet passage of the reforms as a watershed moment for Zimbabwe’s criminal justice, which could positively impact the lives of thousands of prisoners.
The sweeping principles of the bill address concerns around the inadequacies of the existing legislation through incorporating international norms and standards relating to prisons administration as well as to align the domestic law to the Constitution.
The sweeping legislation passed on Tuesday proposes modernising the prisons legislation with a view to ensuring that it accords with international norms and standards regarding the administration and treatment of prisoners and providing a prison system that caters for the needs of vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, juvenile offenders as well as the disabled and other special categories of society with special needs.
Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said adopting international prison standards will remove stigma associated with inmates, easing rehabilitation of convicts into the society. “We will … create correctional community centres which are basically open prisons where some of our offenders will be allowed to stay in some of these open prisons where they get life skills, where they are rehabilitated and prepared to be integrated back into society.
“And these open prisons we want them to be interactive so that members of the community can also interact with these prisoners so that we remove the stigma that is associated with being a prisoner,” he said. The open prisons offer a more relaxed environment for convicts, permitting them to take up employment and education opportunities inside the prison.
By law, prisoners are not to forfeit their right to education and work by virtue of their imprisonment.
However, in Zimbabwe not all prisoners and juveniles have been allowed access to educational programmes and learning, violating detainees’ right to education and employment.
The Bill, expected to easily clear the Zanu PF-controlled bi-cameral Parliament, and moves the needle in a significant way in broadening the scope of the parole system so as to accommodate all categories of prisoners.
Ziyambi said: “We will now focus more on restorative justice, we want the rehabilitation of offenders to be the major focus. “We take the offender from society, we rehabilitate, we prepare them to be released back into society so the correctional aspect of our prison service will be emphasised.
“The other major change is the parole system that focuses on those that have a longer term and we are saying we want to broaden it to say that we want everyone to qualify for parole and this is one of the changes that will come.”
The reforms also seek to promote community involvement in prisons’ correctional services in order to ensure that inmates do not face difficulties and hostilities upon reintegration into society.
The Bill also proposes the establishment of correctional community centres throughout the country; and enabling prisoners to consult with a medical practitioner of their choice at their own expense.
Under the new Act, convicts will also be accorded the freedom to choose their personal medical health within new Correctional Community Centres.
The centres are to be set up throughout the country and convicts will also be able to interact with members of the society.
The prison reforms come as Zimbabwe is in the midst of a mass incarceration crisis, with government moving the principles of the bill closer to the finish line.
“By May you will see the Bill already in Parliament. So, it is one of our priority areas to ensure that we complete this exercise,” Ziyambi explained.