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Zimbabwe: addressing the essential needs of prisoners

28-10-2010 Operational Update

As Zimbabwe's economy has stabilized, the ICRC has gradually scaled back its assistance in the country's rural areas. It is currently focusing on further improving the living conditions of prisoners, while maintaining a number of health, water and sanitation projects in polyclinics in Harare.

As Zimbabwe's economy has stabilized, the ICRC has gradually scaled back its assistance in the country's rural areas. It is currently focusing on further improving the living conditions of prisoners, while maintaining a number of health, water and sanitation projects in polyclinics in Harare.

Improving prisoners' living conditions

So far this year the ICRC has visited detainees in 26 of Zimbabwe's 46 prisons on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Together, these 26 prisons hold over 10,000 prisoners, or over 70 per cent of Zimbabwe's total prison population. The ICRC has also conducted ad-hoc visits to the remaining prisons. The monitoring carried out by the ICRC has focused not only on the material conditions of detention but also on respect for due legal process, general treatment, holding capacity and the condition of particularly vulnerable groups such as minors, women and people who are mentally ill.

"The situation in Zimbabwe's prisons is better than it was two years ago," said Thomas Merkelbach, head of the ICRC's regional delegation in Harare. "Malnutrition rates have gone down considerably. Nevertheless, the ICRC is taking further steps in cooperation with the Zimbabwe Prison Service to improve living conditions in prisons throughout the country."

By the end of 2008, a combination of poor harvests, a cholera outbreak and dire economic problems in Zimbabwe had led to severe malnutrition and widespread health problems in the country's prisons. After signing an agreement with the justice ministry in March 2009, the ICRC began visiting prisoners to assess the conditions in which they are being held and the treatment they receive.

On the basis of its findings, the ICRC launched an emergency assistance operation to improve the nutritional status of prisoners. The operation involved therapeutic feeding for acutely malnourished prisoners and general food distributions to prevent further malnourishment.

Today, while still helping to improve the nutritional situation and food supply, the ICRC is also upgrading prison kitchen facilities, supplying blankets and hygiene items, and enhancing prisoners’ access to health care. In addition, it is improving water supply and sanitation, and reinforcing preparedness measures aimed at stemming outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.

"We make recommendations to the authorities – who bear the primary responsibility for the conditions of detention – on such issues as how to improve the food supply," said Filipa Marques, the ICRC delegate responsible for coordinating the organization's activities in Zimbabwe's prisons. "Sometimes small changes can make a big difference in prisoners' lives."

The ICRC has continued to supplement the Zimbabwe Prison Service diet by providing beans and oil in 17 of the largest prisons, which together hold some 8,300 prisoners, or nearly 65 per cent of the country's total prison population. Since June 2010, it has also been providing groundnuts so as to help protect against pellagra, a vitamin-deficiency disease causing skin lesions and diarrhoea.

In July, the ICRC and the Zimbabwe Prison Service finalized a joint plan of action to enhance the production of leguminous plants, groundnuts and other vegetables in prison farms. In addition to providing technical support and training, the ICRC supplied seed, fertilizer and tools needed to grow sugar beans and other vegetables. Irrigation systems are currently being upgraded to enhance production during the next growing season.

The Zimbabwe Prison Service and the ICRC have organized training and workshops aimed at delivering better quality health care. The ICRC also helps the prison service to ensure that basic equipment and essential drugs are available in prison clinics and that sick detainees receive suitable treatment.

In 2010 the ICRC has also:

  • repaired and improved the cooking facilities in 10 prisons, for which it has delivered electrical spare parts and cooking pots and stoves, benefiting around 5,000 prisoners;
  • improved access to reliable safe water sources in five prisons, benefiting some 2,200 prisoners and prison officers and families living in the compounds;
  • distributed blankets, hand soap, laundry detergent and household cleaning products to all prisoners in the 26 prisons it has visited regularly;
  • distributed two bi-monthly supplies of essential drugs, basic medical equipment, medical forms and other stationery items to complement the Zimbabwe Prison Service supplies for all prison health services;
  • given prisoners the opportunity to write a letter to other family members. More than 5,000 prisoners did so.

Supporting polyclinics in Harare

After declining significantly for over a decade, Zimbabwe's national health system is slowly recovering thanks mainly to assistance that the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare receives from the international community. According to UNICEF's latest quarterly assessment, 92 per cent of the rural clinics and 87 per cent of the urban ones are no longer experiencing shortages of essential drugs. Between January and September 2010, 770 people were stricken with cholera, compared with almost 100,000 in the same period of 2009.

The Harare City Health Services, however, in charge of the health system in the capital and independent from the health ministry, are struggling to recover. The services lack the funds they need to purchase such items as essential drugs, medical supplies, cleaning items and stationery, and still do not have full access to supply channels set up by international donors.

The ICRC started assisting the Harare City Health Services in 2007 and by 2009 was fully supporting all 12 polyclinics run by the services in the high-density suburbs of the capital. The polyclinics, which serve nearly 1.2 million people, provide quality curative care, family planning, ante- and post-natal care, and clean and safe deliveries.

In 2010, the ICRC has continued to provide the 12 polyclinics with drugs, medical supplies, furniture, cleaning materials and stationery. The drugs provided by the ICRC have amounted to approximately 75 per cent of the requirement, compared with almost 100 per cent in 2009. This reduction has been the result of improvements in drug supply channels this year.

The ICRC improved conditions in the clinics' maternity wards by providing them with medical equipment and furniture. It also supplied maintenance items needed to proceed with upgrades in seven clinics.

More than 600,000 patients have received curative treatment at the 12 polyclinics so far this year.

Restoring family links

Ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and elsewhere in Africa continue to force people to seek refuge in the region. Around 25,000 refugees are registered in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe, a figure that represents only a small part of the total, as refugees in urban centres are not accounted for.

Because many displaced people have lost contact with their families, the ICRC and National Red Cross Societies within the region are helping them to trace, restore and maintain contact with their relatives wherever possible.

Refugees in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe have exchanged over 1,200 Red Cross messages (containing brief family news) with their relatives so far this year.

Strengthening the capacities of National Red Cross Societies

In 2010, the ICRC has continued to support the five National Societies covered by its regional delegation (Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) with their tracing, disaster preparedness and response activities, and with their efforts to promote basic humanitarian principles. In addition to funding, this support has consisted of:

  • a seminar on restoring family links organized for the nine National Red Cross Societies covered by the ICRC regional delegations in Harare and Pretoria;
  • contingency planning carried out by the Zimbabwe Red Cross for a possible return of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa fleeing xenophobic violence;
  • seminars organized for newly elected members of the National Red Cross Society boards in Botswana and Namibia.

Promoting international humanitarian law

The ICRC continues to spread knowledge of and promote respect for international humanitarian law among public authorities, armed forces personnel and students. This year it has:

  • held information sessions on international humanitarian law for nearly 300 officers from Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe;
  • taken part in peace-keeping courses in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, where participants were advised on the role of the ICRC and international humanitarian law in peace-support operations
  • organized sessions for members of inter-ministerial committees on international humanitarian law in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe to help them to ratify instruments of international humanitarian law and incorporate their provisions into national law;
  • cooperated with the Zimbabwe defence in the training of trainers in international humanitarian law.

Photos

Zimbabwe. The Nurse in Charge at Masvingo Remand Prison explains to a malnourished prisoner the treatment he will have to follow until he recovers. 

Masvingo, Zimbabwe. The Nurse in Charge at Masvingo Remand Prison explains to a malnourished prisoner the treatment he will have to follow until he recovers.
© ICRC / O. Moeckli

Zimbabwe. A prisoner weighs vegetables before they are brought to the kitchen for cooking.  

Masvingo, Zimbabwe. A prisoner weighs vegetables before they are brought to the kitchen for cooking.
© ICRC / O. Moeckli

Zimbabwe. The Rations Officer at Masvingo prison checks that the quantities of food sent to the kitchen correspond to the total rations needed by the prisoners.  

Masvingo, Zimbabwe. The Rations Officer at Masvingo prison checks that the quantities of food sent to the kitchen correspond to the total rations needed by the prisoners.
© ICRC / O. Moeckli

Masvingo, Zimbabwe. A prisoner receives a visit from his wife.  

Masvingo, Zimbabwe. A prisoner receives a visit from his wife.
© ICRC / O. Moeckli