It is clear that African prisons face a host of challenges, including discrepancies of good governance, funding, and other resources.
Such shortcomings have resulted in overcrowded and otherwise cruel prison conditions.
Yet it is also clear that several governments and organisations have committed themselves to improving the lot of Africa’s incarcerated by promoting prisoners’ rights.
As a result, Africa is home to several innovative instruments, policies and institutions aimed at protecting the rights of those behind bars.
In his paper, Prisons in Africa: An evaluation from a human rights perspective of 2008, Jeremy Sarkin states that what is needed currently is a political will and resources to translate pronouncements into practice.
Zambia is among other countries in Africa that is experiencing congestion in correctional centres. This is not a new phenomenon as it dates way back in the post-colonial era.
Overcrowding is perhaps the most pressing concern facing Zambia Correctional Service (ZCS) today.
However, what is different currently as Prof Sarkin puts it is political will and that has been demonstrated by the United Party for National Development (UPND) Government in addressing the challenge.
While it is difficult to substantiate the cause of this increase, one cannot refute the fact that the Zambia Correctional Service (ZCS) has been experiencing unprecedented increase in the inmate population
resulting in overcrowding which remains a thorn in the flesh.
This scenario could be attributed to the nature and design of the prison facilities which were initially intended for political
retribution by the colonial masters and the dilapidated prisons infrastructure mostly constructed between 1910 and 1964.
In addition, the post-independence era witnessed a drastic increase in crime rate and more court convictions without corresponding expansion of prison/ correctional space, hence inevitable overcrowding.
Currently, the average number of inmates is around 25,000 against the holding capacity of 9,150 translating to overpopulation of 162 per cent.
The remand – convict ratio is at 1:5 and continues increasing.
It is against this background, that President Hakainde Hichilema directed the Zambia Correctional Service to decongest correction centres.
He made the directive when he swore in the current Zambia Correctional Service Commissioner General Fredrick Chilukutu and his deputy Kuyomba Bwalya.
From the time the directive was made, the service has been assessing its operation from strategic and operative levels to ensure that congestion is reduced in all centres.
In an interview, Mr Chilukutu said a number of measures had been put in place to arrest the issue of congestion.
Mr Chilukutu says the completion of one of the ultra -modern Mwembeshi
Correctional Remand Prison and Correctional Centre in December, 2022 necessitated the transfer of more than 1,000 inmates from Lusaka Central Correctional and Kamwala Remand Facilities.
This has greatly assisted in decongesting Lusaka based Facilities. “Consequently, the completed facility in Mwembeshi has increased the holding capacity of correctional facilities from 9,150 to 10,650. The holding capacity is further expected to increase to 12,450 by August this year when the other facility is also completed,” he said.
In addition, Mr Chilukutu says the service had continued to expand and establish Open Air facilities as a strategy to not only decongest convectional facilities but also boost agricultural production.
He cites Nansanga Irrigation Development Support Project in Serenje, Central Province where the Service had upgraded the infrastructure to accommodate up to 1,600 inmates.
The service chief says the prerogative of mercy that Mr Hichilema had been exercising had seen a total of 4,040 inmates being released on pardon and amnesty between January and December 2022.
Mr Chilukutu further said a number of foreign nationals serving their sentences in ZCS centres were scheduled for transfer to go and serve the remaining part of their sentences in their home countries.
These are countries where the service has signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with regard to inmates’ exchange.
In December, 2022, 34 Malawian nationals who were serving prison sentences in Eastern and Muchinga Provinces were transferred to the Malawi Prison Service.
Currently, there are more than 1,000 foreigner nationals convicted or not yet convicted dotted in correctional centres.
“Another important model that will help ZCS reduce on congestion is the Parole System, this is an old concept in the service however; we hope reviving and reforming of rules governing the operation of the National Parole Board will help decongest the centres,” Mr Chilukutu said.
He elaborates that the new parole system would operate differently from the old system and would be chaired by a full time chairperson who would be a retired civil servant.
“Further, its administration will be decentralised to regional level with two regions to start operating as pilots,” he said.
With regard to inmates’ welfare, the Service Chief explained that the service had sufficient food rations in all correctional centres despite the swelling numbers of inmates.
Additionally, Mr Chilukutu says the service had embarked on commercialising agriculture and industries with a view to generate income to supplement the treasury.
He further expresses gratitude to the Government for supplementing efforts meant to address and improve living environment in correctional centres.
He says the Government had procured bunk beds and beddings for all inmates.
“I am glad to confirm that so far 50,000 blankets, 25, 000 mattresses and materials for producing inmates’ bunk beds have been procured. Bunk bed production is currently on-going on in our Correctional Workshops,” he says.
Indeed congestion in the recent years has increased and this is not only in Zambia but a challenge that Africa is facing.
It is important that the community, the church and Non-Governmental Organisations(NGOs), among others, work with the law enforcement officers to reduce crime and ensure complete reintegration of ex-inmates into the community.
(The author is Head -Public Relations Unit at ZCS)