For Superintendent Precious Chinamasa, Rehabilitation Coordinator of the Zimbabwe Prison Services, being a female prisoner in Zimbabwe is synonymous with serving a double sentence; the first sentence for being a woman, and the second for being felonious. In a patriarchal context that has normalised unequal treatment of women and men, aggravated by the difficult economic circumstances, it is “not very easy to be a woman prison inmate.”
According to Chinamasa, female inmates in Zimbabwe constitute 0.1% of the total prison population of approximately 17,000. There are three exclusively female prisons in Zimbabwe, with the largest being Chikurubi female Prison in Harare, followed by Mlondolozi Prison in Bulawayo, and Shurugwi Prison. There are other female prisons annexed to male prisons throughout the country, and they are approximately 23. There are also other temporary holding cells for female prisoners, where they are kept on a temporary basis until they are moved to the female prison cells.
Chinamasa still believes that unless there is a deliberate willingness from policy makers to change the situation of women, women offenders still have a long way to go before their gender rights are recognised in Zimbabwe. “The knowledge that we gain through training workshops is very good, and changing the training curricula to embrace gender equality requirements is the best way to go because it will set the standards for ensuring that gender equality commitments are implemented by service provides in the prison and correctional services sector. However, there is need for policy makers to be very practical and realistic in addressing these issues. Prison services are being conceptualised and implemented in the mainstream throughout the country, without paying particular attention to women’s gender specific needs. The Prisons’ Act itself is gender blind, and prison cells for female inmates do not have incinerators and facilities for pregnant and nursing mothers. Hygienic sanitary pads are not included on the list of requirements for female inmates, only cotton wool is bought under the medical supplies list, and is never listed as a specific need for women. As a result women depend on donated sanitary wear for their menstrual needs, and in the event that the good Samaritans do not come on board for a specific period, it becomes difficult to manage women’s menstrual cycles. The same applies for nursing mothers, especially HIV positive mothers who cannot breast feed their babies. Dinner is served between 3pm and 4pm every day, just before lock up time, which means such mothers will not have access to hot water for preparing baby’s milk, and that baby has to get used to the harsh feeding time table like their mother. The same applies to toddlers accompanying their mothers in prison, they have to get used to dinner at 4pm until the following day. Prison officers may allow mothers to take food inside for their babies, but the food is therefore usually taken cold, it is not documented as policy. This kind of practice is not healthy for women and children, and is total violation of their human rights.”
Chinamasa believes that the open prison system is the best for female inmates, but bemoans that in Zimbabwe only male inmates have access to open prison facilities. The open prison system is set up to aid reintegration of offenders. One of the main features of this facility is that inmates who qualify for such are entitled to home leave every month until they are released, and this is of course subject to conditions. It is designed to allow qualifying offenders’ time to go back home and settle their family affairs, visit their sick, attend graduation ceremonies and birthdays, fulfil their conjugal rights or even fulfil other marriage rites and obligations. Where there is enough and valid justification, offenders can be allowed more time beyond the usually stipulated 5 days to attend to their family affairs. However there are crimes that do not qualify for open prison such as rape, unwarranted violence towards the other, stock theft, armed robbery, and car-jacking.
The open prison system allows inmates to move freely within the community where the prison is located without much restriction every day. In fact the inmates become part of the community as they are introduced to the local chiefs and local leaders and they can become part of the everyday community life. They can be sent to the diary and spend the whole day tending cows within the community, in-fact it allows a prisoner a sense of freedom, and the rehabilitation and mingling with communities starts here. They also feel a sense of acceptance back into the community and it will be easy for them to settle back after release from prison.
What troubles Chinamasa however is that while there is an open prison facility for men, there is none for women in Zimbabwe. On the other hand this can be interpreted as discrimination of women as they have no access to open prison rights that men are accorded. She sees similarities in current trends and those in colonial Rhodesia where there were better facilities for one race at the expense of indigenous people in all spaces.
“For me as a female leader within Prison and Correctional Services, negotiations for such a facility for women are usually met with scorn and dismissed with jokes by responsible authorities.”
Yet in her view the open prison facility would be most relevant and suitable to women than to men. “Reality is that men are not only in the majority of offenders, but are responsible for the most heinous crimes. The crimes women commit are majorly economic one, hence their suitability to qualify most for the open prison as compared to men. Research has it that when women commit grave offences, it is more because they are victims rather than anticipators of the same crimes. But most importantly, an open prison facility would serve the gender specific needs for women and allow them time and space to attend to issues of pregnancy, the much required privacy and access to facilities during their monthly menstrual cycles, and also, women are the backbone of the family. Most of them are single mothers who leave children alone at home, creating another unsafe and insecure environment for children. Affording such women to go home once in while would help address their emotional and psychological needs as women and also those of their children.
Establishing an open prison for women has more justifications than the one that currently exist for men. Given the challenges the state has to provide hygienic sanitary wear women could be sent home every month to experience their monthly cycles in a clean and permitting environment. Open prison lock up time is late in the night, around 9pm, like in the normal home set up where people just lock themselves inside to sleep, and this would be ideal for mothers accompanied by babies and toddlers, and also for HIV positive mothers who nurse their babies with milk formulas in terms of allowing them time and access to facilities for feeding.” An open prison system would afford women better access to information as they have access to media, privacy in single quarters to be able to better care for their children and feed them as and when required as they can prepare food on their own.
Chinamasa recounts the shame and pain she goes through each time she raises the issue of establishing an open prison holding cell for women. According to her, the common perception is always that it is difficult and more expensive to create an open prison for women, and justification for such is based on commonly held stereotypes of womanhood, and is decidedly used to curtail women’s freedom rights. “They say it is expensive and there is no budget to for example erect a high fence around the women’s open prison to ensure that they do not go out at night to loiter for purposes of prostitution. They also say if women are allowed to move freely in the community they will not be able to protect themselves from rapists so they are better protected in the closed prisons, and that women may come back pregnant and this will add an expense to the prison services. There are so many negative connotations, it is as if women are sex hungry and unreasonable and irresponsible people, yet it is the men who rape and impregnate women.
Chinamasa underlines that rehabilitation and reintegration is not about women or men, but is a right for all. It is about individuals, families, societies, and for everyone. “Should women’s reproductive rights end simply because they are in prison when for men they can continue, and they are even given leave of absence from prison to go and enjoy their rights?” She seriously calls for the UN Women as the agency with a special mandate for women’s rights to seriously consider supporting the establishment of an open prison facility for women in Zimbabwe, where currently the rights of female offenders are a mockery. “As women in the prison sector we need to seriously lobby for the establishment of an open prison facility for women, and we should include the women from UN Women, the Ministry of Women Affairs Gender and Community Development, civil society, women from communities and from the prisons as informers to the whole process. Female inmates should be given a chance to come and share experience, needs and requirements with women in the development sector for their rights to be realised. We have often sat in meetings and committees where male senior officers lead the processes of deliberating around issues of an open prison for women, and we have gone to various ministries, the so called relevant ones, which are also male dominated to negotiate for such without including the ministry of women affairs to lead this kind of lobbying and advocacy process. Reasons that have been received from the said ministries for not establishing a female open prison are not based on fact but on perception, and such negative perceptions are bent on nothing but the intention to block development in this direction. The issue of limited funding is well understood, but facts are that buildings are there in Zimbabwe that could be used for such establishment of the female open prison. One already existing prison can be easily turned into an open one and female inmates can be vetted and transferred there to also benefit. The open prison can be established without being perfect space as long as it provides somewhere to start from for women and its development can be continuous as more resources are identified. Guidelines and planning for an open prison for women are already there, what lacks is willingness to act. Given our current economic situation, arguing that setting up of an open prison has to wait until there is enough money is the same as denying women the chance for such a facility because there might never be ‘enough money’ in Zimbabwe in the near future. The best is to work with what is on the ground and do our best to source assistance from the donor community around this issue. Open prison facility will allow women to engage in income generating projects for the benefit of their families. Open prison teaches one to be dependent on their selves again from a situation where you have to live on routine and curfews all the time. Denying women a chance for rehabilitation is tantamount to judging the, for total failure.
Yours truly asked Chinamasa to summarise the change she wants to see in the prisons and correctional services in three bullets:
• “I want to an open prison for women”
• “I want to see women afforded opportunities in rehabilitation programmes which are currently dominated gendered. Programmes for women are limited to sewing, knitting, vegetables gardening when men go for life changing programmes.”
• “I want to see female offenders paired with mentors both inside and outside prison so that each moment becomes a learning movement for transformation. Currently the only mentors allowed into prison are from the Churches and the issues women are taught do not empower them but confine them in spaces where there are ideologies that privilege men over women, where they are not allowed to think and exercise personal agency, and where there is potential for them to get abused without suspicion.”