Conditions within Zimbabwe’s prisons are so horrific that the International Committee of the Red Cross has stepped in. The Swiss-based organization announced last Friday that it is distributing food to 6,300 inmates and has set up therapeutic feeding programs for the severely malnourished. The help can’t come fast enough. On March 31, an undercover South African documentary titled Hell Hole showed emaciated detainees in rags. And the prison system is so overcrowded that the diseased and starving are forced to share cells with healthy prisoners. So many were dying that the bodies were crammed into makeshift mortuaries.
Lucky prisoners get one meal a day and salty water. Roy Bennett, a leading opposition politician who is now deputy minister of agriculture in the coalition government, was noticeably thinner after being freed on bail in March after a few weeks behind bars. He called his detention, on banditry and terrorism charges many believe were politically motivated, a “harrowing experience” that “I don’t wish on my worst enemy.” While he was in jail it took authorities up to two days to remove five bodies. A Zimbabwean newspaper reported that more than 50 per cent of the inmates in one prison died in 2008.
The economic and social implosion of Zimbabwe has meant that money isn’t getting to the prisons. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa told the ZimOnline website that he’d received less than two per cent of his departmental budget. So, in addition to feeding prisoners, the Red Cross will renovate the primitive kitchen and sanitation facilities as well as improve the water system. The organization is even handing out clothes and cooking utensils. And in a country racked by a mammoth cholera outbreak—at least 100,000 have contracted the disease and more than 4,000 have died—the Red Cross pledged to “make sure that detainees receive the treatment they require in the event of any outbreak of disease.”