HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Small prison cells form a square around the courtyard, facing a shed in the center where prisoners are packed in.
This is the mental health section of Chikurubi Maximum Prison.
“We have too many of these patients,” says Dr. Patrick Mhaka, Deputy Director of Health Services at Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services. He acknowledged that the prisoners in the mental health section of the prison live in overcrowded cells, without basic necessities such as proper clothing and running water.
Like the rest of the prison, people in this section keep their belongings, mostly prison wear, bath essentials and blankets, in small buckets. The cells are small, with toilets but no running water. Containers of water are scattered inside.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
The occupancy of the prison is 1260. But there are more than 2508 people currently incarcerated here, says Alvord Gapare, senior assistant commissioner officer commanding at the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service. Some 300 of those patients are living in the mental health section.
“We admit patients who have committed crimes but are suffering from mental issues,” says Gladys Makura, a Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services principal corrections officer and matron for psychiatric patients.
Current prison staff did not respond to questions about what people in the mental health section were being treated for or how they were being treated. But a former Médecins Sans Frontières staff member who was a clinical psychologist at the prison until 2017 says the most common illnesses include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but also added that people with drug addictions and epilepsy were also housed in the mental health section. Médecins Sans Frontières has done work in partnership with prisons in Zimbabwe.
Some of the section’s residents haven’t been accused of a crime at all.
Makura attributes part of the overcrowding problem to the fact that some of the section’s residents were assigned here because they are deemed too dangerous to be housed in other health institutions. Those patients can remain here indefinitely.
According to Mental Health in Zimbabwe, a journal, Chikurubi is one of only nine institutions that provide mental health care services for Zimbabwe’s 15.7 million people.
Itai Tuwe has been living in the in the mental health section of the prison since February 2019. He says conditions in the cells are harsh.
“In the cells where we sleep, the flushing system for toilets is dysfunctional,” he says adding the food to his list of complaints.
Worst of all, Tuwe says people in this section often don’t receive trials or access to the justice system.
“At times we also stay in prison for a long time because we are not given a chance to defend ourselves because of our mental health issues,” he says.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe, judges have the discretion to send people accused of some offense to be treated at psychiatric hospitals. In these cases, their release is not determined by the courts, but rather by a psychiatrist who assesses them before they can be considered for release.
But that just adds to the long list of challenges. There are just two psychiatrists employed by Zimbabwe’s prison system. And only one works at Chikurubi, along with two volunteers.
“It’s easy for the inmates to come here, but it is a challenge for them to get out,” he says.
Lloyd Kuveya, a research consultant with Amnesty International, says justice is hard to come by for people with mental health challenges in Zimbabwe.
“Many people do not know how to handle people with mental health issues,” Kuveya says. “Some adopt a ‘good riddance’ attitude, leaving the system to deal with too many patients.”
Nyasha Chinzou, a lawyer with Chakanyuka and Associates Attorneys in Harare, says that while the constitution provides for legal aid for people with medical issues, the state doesn’t have the resources for it. A few organizations provide legal representation and work to help people with mental illnesses expedite the process of getting out of prison. But they are poorly resourced and understaffed, he says.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, and Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona to English.