Ex-Chikurubi jail bird narrates the horrendous quality of life for inmates
Clad in a blue t-shirt, black track bottom and the same dusty brown shoes he was wearing the day he walked into Chikurubi Maximum Prison seven years ago, Robson Jack, 48, could not hide his relief.
With a kind of forlorn happiness written all over his face, Jack was not ashamed to tell anyone at Rotten Row Magistrates Court where he had just come from – hell, or Zimbabwe’s version of it, at least.
When he was arrested seven years ago, he left behind a wife and two children but they are not his first port of call; and that’s not because he is not desperate to reunite with his family, to see them again. It’s just that he has a more urgent mission, more desperate business to attend to.
“I chose to assist my brothers who became family for the past seven years first,” he told NewZimbabwe.com adding he planned to surprise his wife and children who are not aware he has been released. As he left Chikurubi, Jack manged to sneak out several letters from colleague inmates.
It was a daring move that could have earned him another two months in the dreaded penitentiary. But he had to do it. The letters contained desperate pleas for help from prisoners requesting food, toiletries, visits and legal support from their relatives.
Jack does not know where to find the relatives. And so, he approaches anyone willing to listen at Rotten Row Magistrates Courts, asking if they might know the inmates. Aware of the horror he left them enduring, he is desperate to help his former cellmates.
He also approaches court officials asking if they know any lawyers who could assist his former cellmates’ free of charge.
“I had to sacrifice (getting the letters out); they are going through tough times and, recently, we lost two cellmates to typhoid,” he claims.
The allegation is however, denied by Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) acting spokesperson, Priscilla Mthembo.
The ZPCS official said no typhoid deaths had been recorded in the prisons, adding that the authority was on high alert following confirmation of cases in Mbare last month.
Explaining how he got the letters out, Jack continues: “After the officer handed me my clothes and ordered me to go and wash them.
“I managed to roll the letters up and hide them in my socks and prayed hard not to be caught when I was being searched on the exit gate.”
About his time as a guest of the State, Jack says life in a Zimbabwean prison is horrendous.
“The feeling I had the first day I walked into the prison never changed; the place is not one you get used to.
“The seven years was like an endless nightmare to me and I even tried to escape when I was left with only two months of my sentence,” he said.
Jack was jailed on his own guilty plea for robbery after he connived with friends to steal $25,000 from his employer in 2009. As we talk, he is holding a bottle of coke - the first he has had in seven years. He looks up into the blank sky, lost in reminiscence about his time in hell.
“Life in jail is hard, really hard. People are starving; in seven years, I have eaten meat only once,” said.
“Our main relish was spinach and, during some days, we would be given sadza with Royco mixed with hot water.
“The mealie meal that was used to prepare our sadza resembled chicken feed and we would eat it only for survival.
“Yeah, I’m finally out now and you really won’t understand my happiness.”
According to Jack, they slept on the floor under thin and dirty blankets which inmates opted not to use as they were infested with lice and excreta.
“During cold nights, inmates would sometimes huddle together in order to be warm,” he said.
“The tales you hear about prison life are not lies. Would you believe it that we would drink water from the toilet cistern when we got thirsty during the night?”
Sometimes the flushing system would not be functional and their excreta would pile up until it spilled onto the floors. They just had to get used to it, he says. Inmates locked up in their cells for long spells would go without any water to drink since containers are not allowed in the cubicles.
Jack shared a cell with other 39 inmates. He said the cells are shared with people in the terminal stages of AIDS, Tuberculosis, Herpes and other highly infectious diseases as well as some prisoners who are mentally ill.
Many of the infected prisoners are unable to control their bodily functions and this results in the cell floor and blankets being contaminated with body fluids, pus, phlegm, blood, urine and faeces.
His message to Zimbabweans who have family members in the country’s jails is for to not neglect them.
“Sometimes families get so angry after their relative commits a crime and gets incarcerated but I say they should think twice.
“Sodomy is rampant and I pity teenagers who fall prey to senior inmates who sodomise them in return of food.
“If you have incarcerated relatives, please continue taking care of them, other differences can be solved later.”
On the bright side, Jack says while inside, he trained to become an electrician, a profession he looks forward to joining. Zimbabwe’s prisons are struggling with overcrowding and poor funding from the cash-strapped government
The prisons service requires $1.1m monthly for food, translating to about $13m per annum. However, just US$3,1m was provided in the 2016 national budget.
Treasury also made an allocation of just $301,000 was made towards medical supplies and related services against a bid of $5,2m, representing a mere 6% of the department’s requirement in 2016.
The underfunding leaves the service in a precarious position as consequences of food shortages include the risk of riots and threats to human life.