HARARE - A truck carrying scores of prisoners from Chikurubi Maximum Prison arrives at the Harare Magistrates Courts.
The occupants peer through the meshed barricade looking to spot wives, husbands, brothers, sisters and friends, as they are brought to answer further charges.
Prisoners tell of being crammed together in tiny cells amidst heavy beatings, torture and unhealthy food rations.
Some of the prisoners are just starting lengthy jail terms while some are pre-trial detainees.
One man held in Harare’s notorious Chikurubi prison is Blessing Makomborero Chiduke, 25, an armed car robber who is serving an 18-year jail sentence on the back of more pending charges.
Chiduke of 218 Munemo Road in Ascot, Gweru had just started serving the 18-year jail term when he was called back to court in August to answer to another car theft charge.
He quickly pleaded guilty and confessed he had committed two other similar offences.
The presiding magistrate Hosea Mujaya allowed police to prepare the docket for the further charges before passing down a 10-year jail term, which would run concurrently with the 18 years. Chiduke is a man clinging desperately on to life.
His ribs are starkly carved across his body; his arms dangle uselessly from his shoulders. From somewhere, somehow, he has summoned a smile.
Last week, just two months after his jail ordeal began, he returned to the site of his incarceration for the first time.
He regrets his actions and tells the court of starvation; the merciless beatings that left weals down his back and sides until, said Chiduke, “I could not sit, let alone lie down.
“Prison officers would assure me that it was their job to deal with people like me,” he told the court.
“They asked me why the CID guys did not just shoot me dead when I was apprehended.
“They intimidated me by saying that thieves like me did not deserve to live — not even in prison.”
Chiduke said he has endured horror in C Hall.
“I remember that my first meal was Sadza which was served on a bin lid with a little boiled spinach. In a normal situation 15 to 20 prisoners sleep in one cell but we were about 40 crammed up in that small room. I was not given blankets and had to share with others.
“You might think that I am exaggerating but the space I was allocated to sleep was about 30cm, measured by a ruler,” he said.
He said the following morning he was served with half cup of plain porridge and later bread crumbs for tea.
“The stale bread crumbs would be returns from well-wishing bakeries,” he said.
“Every time we aired our grievances prison officers just told us that the government didn’t have enough resources to cater for us.”
The ablution facilities at Chikurubi, according to Chiduke, were a disaster and were made worse by scarcity of water.
“Toilets are always about full with faecal matter and water was and is always a rare commodity. At one time I had severe abdominal pains and went to the hospital where I was given a prescription to give to my relatives because there is no medication there.
“I was told that the government could only provide pain killers.”
The notorious car-jacker is also implicated for causing a failed jail break at Chikurubi Maximum Prison that left five inmates dead.
He explained how prison officials then introduced a new form of punishment for anyone that complained about living conditions.
“We would be sent to a certain office called ‘yards’ where one is terribly assaulted under the feet by officers using a one-metre long baton stick of conveyer rubber belt.
“I was also victim to the said punishment and as a result I sustained permanent feet problems.”
MDC chief elections officer Morgan Komichi, who spent more than four months at Chikurubi Remand Prison after he was arrested for fraud and contravening sections of the Electoral Act, confirmed the situation there was dire.
“The institution is ailing and I cannot even begin to mention the living conditions. The food, lice-infested blankets and treatment is just something else. I wish something could be done urgently,” Komichi said.
“There is a serious shortage of uniforms at remand prison. There is no supply of uniforms and most rely on well-wishers who usually help out. Detainees actually borrow from each other when they are coming to court.”
He said there was high risk of diseases spreading.
“The prisons are tuberculosis (TB) prone. Blankets are old and never washed hence they harbour dust, flees and lice. The worst thing is that prisoners are not allowed to wash them. I was detained in winter and fully understand what it was like living there,” he said.
Former Judge President of the High Court of Zimbabwe, Justice Rita Makarau, expressed concern over the appalling conditions pre-trial detainees were being held under at Harare Central Prison.
During her fact-finding visit, Justice Makarau met a number of pre-trial detainees, including at least 10 who had been held on remand for 10 years without trial.
She described the inmates’ plight as “embarrassing and disturbing” and stressed that the courts had “no excuse for this kind of treatment”.