President Robert Mugabe has pardoned all female prisoners in Zimbabwe, irrespective of their crimes, except those on death row or serving life sentences. Male prisoners under the age of 18, and those above 60 who have served two-thirds of their terms were also granted amnesty, with the exception of those convicted of murder, rape and armed robbery.
This announcement was made public in a government notice on Monday and by Wednesday, the prisoners were already free. Though the reason for the pardon was not stated in the notice, this move by Mugabe is not to be mistaken as an act of benevolence, but rather one that has become imperative due to the sorry state of the country’s economy and consequently, a lack of funding to run the prisons.
Over the past decade, Zimbabwe has suffered a series of political and economic crises that have led to a significant decline in the country’s economy. As a result of this, the ZANU-PF has struggled to meet the costs of running a country where over a quarter of the population suffer food shortages, resulting from severe drought that has led to the death of livestock, destroyed crops, and depleted reservoirs.
It is therefore no surprise that the government cannot provide funding for its prisons. The Huffington Post reports that “Zimbabwe’s prisons hold 20,000 inmates, more than their capacity of 17,000.” This inevitably results in congestion and shortages of everything from cell space and food, to uniforms. In 2013, at least 100 prisoners died across the country’s 55 prison facilities and poor nutrition and hunger were given as factors responsible for their death. In March 2015, at least three prisoners died from injuries sustained during a violent protest over food shortages, which led some of them to attempt a prison break.
Priscilla Mthembo, the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services spokeswoman, has said about 2000 prisoners stand to benefit from the amnesty programme. But while this is a welcome development, it is an unsystematic one, with little or no thought put into it. Prison activists have faulted the government for their failure to communicate with the stakeholders involved. Neither the prisoners, their relatives, nor the rest of the country were pre-informed. There was absolutely no talks about rehabilitation, and the process of reintegration was obviously not considered. All these features spell nothing but trouble.
Also, it has been reported that some of the prisoners cannot even afford to go home, as there was no provision for transportation, and clothing. And others have been in prison for so long that they are afraid to step out into a society that is alien to them. The 93-year-old Robert Mugabe might just be shooting himself in the foot with this move as you do not try to solve a problem by creating more; this is exactly what the Zimbabwean president is doing by releasing a certain calibre of people, with not much planned to successfully reintegrate them into an already decaying society riddled with drought and hunger.