LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — For seven years, George Mwanza spent his nights sitting upright on the floor of a prison cell.
The former inmate says the Lusaka Central Correctional Facility was so overcrowded that there wasn’t even space to lie down on the floor, much less sleep in a bed.
“I don’t remember lying down at night,” he says.“We used to sit squeezed together the entire night, because there was no space to sleep.”
The facility was designed to hold 250 inmates but is currently home to more than 1,300, says Percy Chato, the Zambia Correction Service commissioner-general.
At times, there can be more than 100 people per cell, he says. Prisoners stay in their crowded cells from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. each night.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia
In such crowded conditions, it didn’t take long for Mwanza, who had been previously infected with HIV, to present symptoms of tuberculosis.
Guards took him to a local hospital where he was diagnosed with TB, he says. But even after the diagnosis of an airborne disease, he wasn’t isolated from other inmates.
Tuberculosis has been a growing concern in Zambian prisons, all of which are significantly overcrowded, officials admit, with most facilities housing more than three times the number of inmates they were designed to hold. Chato says correctional facilities can accommodate 8,000 inmates nationwide but are currently home to more than 21,000 inmates.
Chato says the primary reasons for the overcrowding are the slow process of the criminal-justice system and the fact that most accused criminals stay in jail for years before their cases are even heard. These conditions have led to the spread of TB.
TB rates in Zambian prisons are 10 to 100 times higher than in the outside community, according to a draft report from Panos Institute Southern Africa.
Numerous international studies from Human Rights Watch, the Paralegal Alliance Network and others also blame overcrowding for the resulting spread of the disease. Each report concludes that the slow pace of the criminal-justice system is the primary factor in overcrowding.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch report estimates that 35 percent of the Zambian prison population are awaiting trial and have not yet been found guilty of the crimes they are accused of committing.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia
Zambia’s Criminal Procedure Code gives police 24 hours from the moment of arrest to get the accused into court for an initial hearing. But many accused are detained for months and even years without trial because they lack legal representation. Bail is available only for some offenses, but most inmates cannot afford bail, Chato says.
Mwanza, who was facing a charge of child sexual abuse in 2008, had no legal representation. He waited for nine months after his arrest for his trial to begin. The trial then took two years.
In 2010, he was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years, but he was pardoned in 2015 because of his poor health.
“My health started failing me way back in 2009, but there was always a shortage of prison wardens to take me to the clinic,” he says, referring to the practice that requires prison guards to take inmates to local health facilities.
After his diagnosis, he was given free medication and asked to return every two weeks. But he wasn’t able to take the medication consistently because of the irregular visits. The prison did not stock its own supply of TB medication, despite the large number of infected inmates, he says.
“There was no adherence to the treatment, because at the time you have an appointment to go to the hospital, you will be told there is not enough manpower of security to take you to the clinic,” he says.
That scenario sounds familiar, says Rodwell Musolwe, who was recently acquitted of rape and aggravated-robbery charges.
His acquittal came after five years in detention. He was diagnosed with TB after two years in the Lusaka Central Correctional Facility.
“I started presenting ill health in my first year of arrest. My trial started three years ago – imagine the injustice of spending all this time in prison only to be acquitted,” says Musolwe, who also did not have legal representation.
Representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs acknowledge that overcrowding is creating serious health problems in the country’s prisons. Construction has started on two new correctional facilities that will have a combined capacity of 3,200. There are also plans to upgrade two other facilities to increase capacity.
“I can’t state the capacity increase for the prisons that will be upgraded, but certainly there will be an increase in capacity,” says Levy Lilanga, the ministry’s public-relations officer.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia
Zambia Justice Minister Given Lubinda says officials are in the process of digitizing court records and linking relevant systems, in order to help decongest prisons.
“There is no justification for the delay in the criminal-justice system,” he says. “We have had instances of court documents missing because of the manual handling. When we digitize the process, everything will be fast.”
Lubinda says that digitized court records will be linked with the courts, police departments and correctional facilities across the country.
“With the click of a key, people should know how many cases are pending hearing,” he says. “Once completed, we should know how many cases should be handled every day.”
In 2017, court reporters stopped using longhand and now use transcription equipment, Lubinda says. But the digitization process will take at least another 18 months.
Other government agencies are taking note of the problem but have not yet taken action. Chato says he has requested that the Ministry of Health provide more equipment and human resources to ensure regular health screenings of inmates, which could curb the spread of TB.
“Those that present health problems are screened, but we have no capacity and equipment to screen all the inmates, even upon admission to the facility,” says Chato.
He says it is not possible to isolate those diagnosed with TB, because there is nowhere to put them.