Committed and Detained Mental Patients at the country’s biggest correctional facility in the country – Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and Chikurubi Female Prison – pleaded with the Senate and Parliament to assist the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPSC) in any way possible in reconciling them with their families.
On Thursday Portfolio Committee on Health, Child Care and the Thematic Committee on HIV toured the Chikurubi prisons to appreciate key health and HIV issues facing persons in prison.
Prisoners who spoke during the tour appealed to the visiting committee to help the ZPSC officers to reconcile them with their estranged relatives who they have wronged, saying unresolved pasts are stalling their way out of the place of confinement.
“We appeal to the government that it grants money and resources to our officers to reach out to our families we’d wronged to reconcile us. Most of our relatives are denying to sign affidavits of discharge for us because of our strained relationships. Some of us have been here for five to ten years and cannot go back into the community because our families are not signing that they will take care of us. So, when we have served our time, we will be taken to another mental institution in Bulawayo. “
Hundreds of people with severe depression, delusional disorders or other mental problems are locked up and receiving treatment at the Chikurubi Maximum Prison.
While some committed major and violent crimes and remain a threat to themselves or other inmates and prison staff, many are incarcerated for misdemeanours — often petty crimes, such as trespassing, disorderly conduct or drug use, resulting from a combination of homelessness and mental illness.
Often, a mentally ill person lands in jail for disorderly conduct when “the ‘crime’ is the fact that he’s off his medications.
Most inmates in Chikurubi prisons with mental challenges feel that their families have forgotten them. Upon discharge, if members of their immediate families do not sign off their affidavits, agreeing that they will take good care of them, they will be taken to Ingutsheni Hospital, the largest psychiatric hospital in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
The prison currently has 300 Detained Mental Patients (DMP).
While the Deputy director of health services at the Chikurubi Maximum prison Dr Patrick Mhaka confirmed that incidents of negligence by the families happen regularly, a resident doctor Blessing Dhoropa estimated that only a 3% of DMPs and Committed Mental Patients (CMP) have been denied association by their relatives.
Also, a chunk of some DMPs awaiting mental reviews feels robbed of their rights to justice and forgotten by the Special Board and Mental Health Review Tribunal – a committee under the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) which has been lying defunct for two years now because it has no chairperson.
Dr Mhaka said the chairperson was suspended and since then, there hasn’t been an appointment of another, suffice to say the board has not sat in a long time, impeding hundreds of inmates’ decisions.
During the portfolio visit, ZPSC officers and inmates all echoed that there is a desperate and urgent need to reappraise and reform the prison system.
“Don’t forget to pray for us,” one juvenile inmate pleaded with parliamentarians at the top of his voice.
Emphasis was made on why the government needs to quickly process a supplementary budget to ease the strained resources for the welfare of prisoners, as the policy shifts by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe which resulted in the RTGS local currency losing value to the US Dollar increased the parastatal’s budget deficit.
Dr Mhaka said while the prison psychiatric is going a long way to treat mental health prisoners, it is the lack of medication that has resulted in patients taking too long to stabilise.
“These DMPs are more of patients than inmates and they face so many challenges compared to the other inmates. We have drug shortages to treat their conditions. They suffer from different conditions such as bipolar, epilepsy and substance misuse. They require medication every day, so there is a great demand for them to have medications, so sometimes we have challenges in meeting their needs.
We really need your support because this is not an ideal rehabilitation for people who suffer from mental illness. In other countries, these patients are kept in special hospitals away from prison. After we release them, we find it difficult to transport them back to their homes and they remain here using the prisons medication and some of them end up being ill again.
If you visit the psychiatric unit at Harare Hospital that is a world class hospital for mental patients. We find that they have padded wards so that patients do not harm themselves and there are recreational activities for patients to occupy themselves, which is considered therapeutic,’’ said Dr Mhaka.
Dr Dhoropa said proper health care was helping to preserve inmates’ physical function, making it possible for their successful reintegration into society upon release.
“We have our clinics that treat certain ailments, however, there are other procedures that we refer to Parirenyatwa. Our lab is not fully functional because we do not have consumables, so it is difficult to carry our x-rays for tuberculosis patients.
We have 518 inmates that are HIV positive, 496 are on the first line and 22 are on the second line and 24 tuberculosis-infected patients and they all receive their medication here. We have a few STIs cases and we are carrying a survey to see the rate of new HIV infections.
From January this year to date we have had six deaths. Our mortuary is down, so we are taking the corpses to Parirenyatwa Hospital,’’ said Dr Dhoropa.
The doctors consented that the institution is not only ill-equipped in terms of facilities but also houses a medical team with limited medical skills, hence they have to regularly transfer some of their patients who require advanced and emergency treatment to the Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals (PGH). Shockingly to note, the ZPSC owes nearly $950 000 to PGH.
The prison’s health situation has worsened since Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International stopped assisting them with health care donations two years ago.
Apart from facing an acute shortage of drugs, the overcrowded prison also suffers from a serious transport problem. The penal institution does not have an ambulance and uses one truck to ferry both male and female inmates to out of the jail hospitals.
The transport issue had soared to the juncture that about ninety inmates have reportedly been discharged, but are still stuck within the dark walls of the correctional facility as there is no transport to ferry them out, due to fuel shortages and there not being enough vehicles to do the work.
The Plight Of The Forgotten Female Prisoners
The Chikurubi Female Prison also houses faceless, nameless and forgotten members of our community.
As of Thursday, the female section had one hundred and forty-eight and twelve children who are by virtue of attachment are in what many would call a shared sentence. The eldest is 3 years and the youngest is 6 months old.
During the day, the mothers endure the rigidity of their sentences in the prison while their innocent kids play at a creche and kinder-garden nearby, shouting “Bus” or “Aeroplane” every time such passes by.
For incarcerated mothers, the adverse experiences of their childhood come rushing back as they experience new traumas in prison, wondering who is protecting their child while they are away and if their custody rights will be challenged. The worst feeling is wondering what their children will think of them when they grow up. That is a lifelong trauma.
“The babies that accompany their mothers to prison spend the day at the preschool so that they do not feel imprisoned together with their mothers. We have a diet scale for the children to guide us, but sometimes we are constrained budgetary wise. Our clinic is responsible for medical services for the children and we also have a ward for mental patients, but if it is serious, we refer them to central hospitals,’’ said officer in charge Superintendent Mary Chakarakara.
While the case is a little different with that at Chikurubi Maximum Prison, women being women have their own special needs, like sanitary pads.
Superintendent Chakarakara said that they usually have enough of those, whereas the disgruntled jailbirds begged to differ. The pads, which are usually donated by NGOs and civic organisations, are undersupplied to meet the demand or sometimes falls into the hands of Janus-faced officers, as the inmates allege.
“Sometimes, we have to share what we have with others. If they run out, we just go without them.”
Chakarakara said the health facilities at the prison needed urgent attention.
“The prison has one ambulance and is not functional at the moment, so we only have one big truck that ferries inmates to court and in case of an emergency or labour pain, that same truck will ferry the inmate to the hospital.”
According to the officer, about forty women are HIV positive and need antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.
Given a chance to air out their complaints, the female inmates said that there is also an issue around food. One mid-aged woman said sometimes the food they don’t compliment the drugs they are standardly taking.
“We want meat,” chorused a group of inmates.
“We are eating relish with no cooking oil.”
Female section dietician N. Nyamufukidza said that they serve the inmates with Sadza, vegetables, beans and sometimes game meat.
The cases of being forgotten by both families and responsible authorities cuts across races and borders. Also stuck up in the biggest female correctional facility in the country are two white women, one from Venezuela and another from Iraq, who have been detained for a considerable time. Reports are that one was arrested in connection with drug possession while another was taken in by immigration authorities.
Sadly for the two, their relatives have failed to avail money to help them process their cases.
Other female inmates penitently asked to be pardoned.
“Forgive us, please. We’re wives and mothers with children.”
In March last year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa freed 3 000 inmates (female prisoners, juveniles, those terminally ill and those serving at the open prison) under amnesty as prisons struggle to feed inmates due to lack of funding from the government.
In his parting remarks, Honourable Fortune Molokele – the acting chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Health and Child Care – assured the inmates that they will take their concerns to the House of Assembly and work towards making the prisoners’ situation better.
“We are with you. We identify with you,” said the human rights lawyer.
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