Features

From deathrow to life: 322 prisoners saved from noose

CHAMBO NG’UNI, Kabwe
THE moment a judge in a high court pronounces a death sentence, convicts are sent to Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison in Kabwe.
Mukobeko Maximum becomes a temporally home for prisoners on death row as they wait for the hangman to execute them, in an event that a President signs their death warrants.
Once in the condemned section, every minute that passes draws the prisoners closer to death and many consider themselves already dead.
Eight prisoners on January 25, 1997 were executed when then President Fredrick Chiluba signed death warrants.
However, during their tenures, President Levy Mwanawasa, Rupiah Banda and Michael Sata did not sign any death warrants.
The condemned section was only built to accommodate a maximum of 48 inmates but over the years, the number has swelled to 332.
Living conditions are enough torture as prisoners sleep in overcrowded cells which are poorly-ventilated and have no toilets.
In 2012, when former vice-president Guy Scott visited the prison, he was appalled by the living conditions which he described as ‘hell on earth’.
As prisoners on death row, it is not strange for them to treat visitors with suspicion thinking that could just be their hangman.
On July 15, President Lungu made a historic visit which saw 332 prisoners’ death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
It was a rare and an unexpected visit. And as President Lungu was addressing the gathering, the inmates listened quietly, perhaps wondering what he was going to say.
“Therefore, in exercise of the powers vested in me by Article 56 of the Constitution of the republic of Zambia I, hereby, exercise presidential clemency and commute all sentences of 332 inmates who were condemned to death to now serve life imprisonment,” Mr Lungu said towards the end of his address.
President Lungu said it was dehumanising that the male condemned section whose capacity is 48 inmates was harbouring over 300 inmates.
“Whilst, the holding capacity for the female section is three inmates, the facility has eight inmates,” Mr Lungu noted. “It goes without saying that this is an affront to basic human dignity apart from the health and sanitation challenges it has created.”
Mr Lungu noted that most prisons in Zambia were built during the colonial days.
Prisons dotted across the country have a total holding capacity of 8,200 but now accommodate 19,000 inmates (both male and female).
The current number in prisons represents 200 percent over-occupancy. This is a negative development as it poses challenges for the prisons authorities in managing their correctional and rehabilitation roles.
With the current situation in prison Zambia has not been able to observe United Nations Standards Minimum Rules (SMR) and other international protocols that stipulate that prisoners be given reasonable comfort and humane treatment.
The inmates who braved a scotching sun were overwhelmed with joy; the moment President Lungu said he had commuted their sentences.
James Musonda, who was representing the inmates, thanked President Lungu for saving them from the death.
“We are very thankful for what you have done for us,” an emotional Musonda said.
Musonda said the prisoners were happy that Mr Lungu commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment only six months after he was elected President.
Musonda said it is clear that President Lungu is concerned about the welfare of prisoners.
And President Lungu’s special assistant for press and public relations Amos Chanda said the head of state has so far not signed any death warrant.
“He would rather there is a careful balance between the need for justice and the need for society to treat its prisoners humanely,” Mr Chanda said.
President Lungu is aware that death penalty is law in Zambia and, he will not make any statements that will prejudice the position of the nation on the matter.
Mr Chanda said the matter of death penalty is before the Constitution Review Commission which has made relevant recommendations in the draft constitution.
He said President Lungu is aware of dehumanising conditions that condemned prisoners were living in and by commuting their sentences; he was creating room for a more conducive environment in prisons.
And ZPS commissioner general Percy Chato said President Lungu’s visit to Zambia’s biggest prison was a historic moment.
“The fact is, you have today repeated history of 1964, when the Zambia Prisons Service was last visited by a sitting head of State,” Mr Chato said.
Mr Chato who also highlighted difficulties that ZPS is facing, said President Lungu’s visit to the prison was an indication of his desire to enhance operations of the institution and improve the living conditions of inmates.
The Head of State assured that Government is constructing new prisons and expanding the holding capacity of existing ones.
President Lungu said so far Government has opened new prisons such as Mwembeshi Maximum Security, Luwingu, Kalabo, Monze, Livingstone and Milima prisons.
“At the core of my Government’s pledge and commitment, is the improvement of the welfare and rehabilitation of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters in our correctional facilities,” Mr Lungu said.
And to improve prison infrastructure and enhance living conditions for inmates Government intends to amend ZPS Act, Cap. 97.
The amendment of this legislation will facilitate the inclusion of provisions that allow for public private partnership in construction of new prisons.
Mr Lungu further said Government has embarked on a robust process of transforming ZPS from being a retributive institution to a correctional one which will ensure compliance with SMR.
This will be achieved by ensuring that a legal framework is accomplished as outlined in the Patriotic Front’s manifesto.
President Lungu is happy that ZPS offers various rehabilitation and skills training programmes to prisoners as well as providing them with opportunities to enrol and complete their academic education.

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