Walking through the lair of the condemned

A NewsDay crew was part of a recent tour of Harare Central Prison and nothing could have prepared the group for the adrenalin rush — a result of both sickening fear and excitement – as they approached the D section which houses condemned prisoners. BY PHYLLIS MBANJE

Source: Walking through the lair of the condemned – NewsDay Zimbabwe August 6, 2016

The wide courtyard leads to heavy wooden double doors that lead into the poorly lit corridor (suppose it’s on purpose) which are sturdy, but washed out. The rancid smell of some cheap floor wax and mouldy wood assails the nostrils as one enters the D section of the prison.

The floors are clean by normal standards, but there is a disturbing presence that hangs in the air. Maybe it’s the prior knowledge that inside are the most dangerous elements of society, murderers and such.

Imagination went into overdrive with pictures of society’s most wanted crouching like tigers in their cages, ready to pounce. The heavily-bolted doors that separated the inmates from the tour group did not give any comfort and neither the fact that armed guards were a stone’s throw away.

According to the officer-in-charge, Chief Superintendent Never Kambizi, there are 73 condemned prisoners housed here.

Walking into the corridor weirdest noises filled the air. Some were singing songs, others rambling away while some made queer sounds.

One that stood out distinctly was from an inmate way down the corridor. It was a cross between a war cry and some unintelligible words.

On the right side another whimpered like a puppy, but many broke into whistles upon realising they had visitors.

The singing, talking gibberish and whistling could be a measure to keep their sanity under the circumstances. Many of them have been on death row for years and every day they wait with bated breath for death that never comes.

“We only allow them an hour to exercise and stretch their limbs,” said Kambizi.

A few years ago a senior game ranger with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management, Maxwell Bowa, who was on death row for 10 months after killing a poacher, narrated his harrowing tale while in prison.

He was one of the lucky ones that got away after a successful appeal.

Bowa at the time was haunted by the ghosts of Hwahwa Prison where he was in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for almost a year.

“Most of fellow inmates on death row have lost their minds. Many no longer have hope nor the will for life,” he said.

That could explain the behaviour of the Harare Central Prison’s condemned.

Upon insistence from visiting correctional officers the from Southern African Development Community, who were part of the tour, one door was opened and the group came face-to-face with one of the condemned.

He is said to be one of the few that are not violent. His face is impenetrable and gives away nothing. He answers to greetings and tells the visitors he has no complaints.

His cell is tiny and suffocating. He lounges casually against the walls. Next to it are two plates, one with beans, another with green vegetables, both do not look appetising. Looks like he had not touched any of his food.

After a brief chat the door is closed, but before it does, for a moment a flash of desperation shows on his face. His mouth opened partially before the door completely shut on him.

There has always been debate on the abolishment of the death penalty in Zimbabwe. Despite the furore over why the country should retain this despicable practice that has since been abandoned by many countries, over 100 inmates are on death row.

Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is also the Justice minister, has spoken out against this practice.

But there has not been any execution since 2004 because there is no hangman. Human rights activists have agitated against the emotional torture that the condemned go through every day.

However, on a positive note, key amendments were made to the country’s laws and women and those under the age of 21 are now exempted from capital punishment.