By Michelle Chifamba – Harare – Agony and despair are written all over 42-year-old Tsitsi Mhandu’s face as she narrates the tale of her life when she spent two years in prison after being found in possession of stolen goods.
“It is almost five years since I was released from prison but the memories of my horrible stay in the cells still linger in my mind,” Mhandu recalled.
Mhandu was not aware that she was two months pregnant when she was jailed because of her erratic menstrual cycle. It was only when she fell sick from what seemed like malaria and was taken to the prison clinic that she was tested and found to be pregnant.
“There were almost 15 pregnant inmates at that time and the prison officials told us that the journey to delivery was going to be regrettable,” she recalled.
“Those seven months were the worst in my life. I endured all the pangs while surviving on a diet of mostly Sadza and soup, which was the same as other female inmates. We shared one large room, 20 of us, each one sleeping on a mat. We had two worn out blankets.”
There are approximately 500 women prisoners in the country’s 72 prison facilities- 46 main and 26 satellite prisons.
Mhandu was one of the few pregnant women who suffered some form of abuse whilst serving jail term. She claims that inhuman treatment prevailed in both the prisons and health institutions that they went to deliver their babies.
“We had no regular medical check-ups. We were treated like ordinary female inmates. And then there was the abuse- They called us names; “Mbavha munozvarirei, murikuda kuwedzera makororo munomu, some of the nurses shouted at me while in labour at Parirenyatwa Hospital where I had been taken in my prison uniform and handcuffs,” Mhandu said.
A 2014 report on Zimbabwe Prison Conditions notes that, ‘prison conditions are harsh with incidences of poor levels of sanitation, overcrowding and inadequate medical facilities.’
Elizabeth Mapakame, shares the same story with Mhandu as she served jail time while pregnant: “The joys of motherhood are lost by the insane conditions that prevail in prisons because they are unsuitable for nursing and pregnant mothers,” she said.
“Pregnant inmates are treated just like any other female prisoner without their needs being recognised. The prisons do not have post natal care. You are forced to return to jail within 48 hours after giving birth at public health facilities together with the newly born baby and that is when you get an extra blanket for the baby.
“When my time to give birth was due, I was transferred to Harare Hospital where I was met with my own fair share of humiliation. The prison garb tells its own story to both the health professionals and other expecting mothers who instantly stigmatize you. The nurses utter all sorts of abusive words. I was made to walk all the way to the labour ward and only got attention from the nurses when the baby’s head was out.”
“It is depressing to give birth whilst you are in prison because of the conditions that we would be exposed to. The diet does not change for nursing mothers and many risk a lot of infections,” narrated Mapakame.
According to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights 2014 report, Zimbabwe has only three fully fledged female prisons in the country – Chikurubi, Shurugwi and Mlondolozi, all the other prisons have a section that has been set aside for women and the conditions are not favourable to female inmates.
“The prisons do not support post natal care and I think the government should support the newly born babies with clothes, blankets and nappies,” Mhandu said.
The Zimbabwe Prison Services Deputy Commissioner, Aggrey Machingauta told the Senate Thematic Committee on Human Rights that at least 29 babies are sharing prison cells with their mothers who are serving sentences for committing various offences in some of the country’s 46 prisons.
“Owing to acute food shortages that have been affecting the institution, nursing mothers have been diagnosed to be severely malnourished, while women who are arrested while pregnant do not have adequate nutrients to sustain the babies in good health,” said Deputy Commissioner Machingauta.
According to Zimbabwe Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender, Zimbabwe Prison Services is unable to provide clothing and food for young children.
Deputy Commissioner Machingauta disclosed that the organisation was saddled with multifaceted problems that were inhibiting it from providing basic needs for prisoners including food, water and clothing.
“Funds allocated to the institution are inadequate. Lack of funding has been regarded as the contributing factor that has been affecting the ZPS,” said Machingauta.
The situation is so bad that most of the toiletries used by inmates are provided by non-governmental and religious organizations.
“Prisons should be correctional facilities not torture bases,” said Pastor Tawanda Gezi, of Prison Fellowship Zimbabwe, one of the organisations that helps female prisoners.
“We have engaged with other churches and the support has been positive. We have also been working with the government and the ZPS holding awareness meetings to prison officials so that they change their attitude towards pregnant inmates. We are still to go to the local hospitals to educate the health personnel on the rights of the pregnant inmates,” Gezi added.