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Justice needed to accomplish Prisons reforms

DESPITE presidential pardons of prisoners, the correctional service is still grappling with congestion in the country’s prisons.Last month President Lungu pardoned 413 prisoners to mark Africa Freedom Day.
Prisoners are pardoned about six times in a year but this gesture is far from decongesting our correctional facilities.
Zambian prisons have a holding capacity of about 8,000, but there are about 21,000 inmates in the prisons.
This unprecedented congestion has contributed to Zambia Correctional Services (ZCS) almost failing to meet some of the basic human needs of the inmates.
Congestion means inmates are unable to sleep properly, neither are they able to feed adequately.
Congestion has also led to high prevalence of HIV and scabies.
Human rights advocates have been hyping for reforms in the management of inmates.
In reforming the prison system, the Zambia Correctional Service is informed by best practices in the region.
In this regard, the ZCS does not want to exert more punishment on inmates than is necessary.
In fact, the ZCS intention is to move away dramatically and drastically from corporal punishment.
ZCS deputy commissioner-general Lloyd Chilundika told a Policy Dialogue on Prisons’ Rights that a correctional officer does not take pleasure in seeing inmates live in squalor.
In fact, in Mr Chilunjika’s words, a correctional officer is the longest serving inmate who feels the pain of the people he looks after.
The correctional officer does not therefore take pleasure the offender being deprived of his/her right.
During the dialogue themed ‘Inside the Prison Walls: Towards Improved Living Conditions in Correctional Facilities’ in Lusaka last week, Mr Chilundika was categorical in stating that prison reforms cannot be undertaken in isolation.
This is because the ZCS is at the receiving end of the criminal justice system.
Therefore, for prison reforms to be accomplished, there is need for overhauling the penal code as well.
It means other players in the criminal justice system such as the Zambia Police Service and the judiciary looking into their statutes, too.
“Much as changes (ZCS reforms) are occurring, there are other processes to which ZCS has no control over,” Mr Chilunduka said.
The congestion is blamed on the old criminal justice system inherited from colonial master, Britain.
For instance, a person who steals a chicken, a needle, a loaf of bread, a head of cabbage is jailed for hard labour.
Stock theft is one of the highest crimes in the country.
Instead of stock theft offenders doing time in jail, they can do with community service and not custodial sentence.
However, our judges’ hands are tied by the penal code whose prescription even for petty thefts is sending people to jail.
This is why there is need to reform the reform cycle, starting with the police who arrest offenders and then hand over to the judiciary.
The ZCS also needs support from stakeholders such as the Ministry of Justice in reviewing the parole system.
It should be decentralised to district level so that more prisoners are released every year.
The ball is now with the Ministry of Justice and the Ireen Mambilima-headed Judiciary.
Ms Mambilima should facilitate the much-needed judicial reforms and then this time around, it is the inmates or offenders who may produce a song in her honour.
Drimz, a local musician was the first to sing about Ms Mambilima’s virtues, extolling a woman and likening her to the Chief Justice.
Ms Mambilima is referenced in Drimz’s song because of the way she conducted herself as Electoral Commission of Zambia chairperson during the 2011 president election when she was the returning officer.
She can deliver justice to the ZCS reforms.
The author is editorials editor at the Zambia Daily Mail.