A visit to prison: a mirror of our society

To visit prison is not to visit some alien place, cut off from ‘normal’ society, where problem people are locked away. If you visit prison you quickly realise you are looking into a mirror of society itself. In fact, to visit a prison is to come starkly in touch with the country we have created for ourselves.

This collection of personal accounts of 33 women prisoners is an amazingly rich mine of information about family life, domestic violence, the influence of witchcraft, the persistence of traditional gender inequality, financial insecurity, ignorance of legal rights and inequality before the law, unrestrained verbal and physical violence within prisons and stigmatisation and cruel comments from family members and neighbours on release from prison.

The reader is stunned by the constant repetition of the theme of growing up in a stable happy home and then meeting with almost unbearable social and economic challenges as adults. This is the lot of most people in Zimbabwe and this book is about those who cannot cope. They started out as ‘good’ people but society pushed them in directions where they could not find their way. They became ‘bad’ people.

Elizabeth stole a baby to save her marriage and not be chased away. Barbra had an abortion and dumped the foetus by the river because she was afraid to face her parents. When Beti’s husband started to insult her and beat her up, because he had become involved with another woman, she decided to get back at him while he slept. She heated some cooking oil and poured it in his ear.

He was in agony for days before he died. Sabena sobbed while she told how she stole cattle to feed her family. Maria was told by the elders to “suffer in silence” when her husband beat her up and cut her with razor blades. Provoked beyond endurance she hit him on the head with a pole and he died. She was sent to Chikurubi where the guards kept calling her “murderer”. Rhoda became “mad with anger” when a woman in her village dug up the remains of her son who had died some days before and used his body parts to bewitch others. She killed two people and injured two others. At the time of the interview she had served 18 years in Chikurubi.

The stories cascade through the book leaving you feeling helpless and sad. But you also notice the steel in these women. They do not give up. They record how they are treated but they do not show bitterness. In one sense prison works because most of them come out determined never to commit crime again. Many of them go through a conversion of life.

They become wiser people. Some put it down to a new found faith. And there are some ‘good endings’ to the stories. Monica, whose In-laws had destroyed her marriage and led her eventually into theft, was dreading the reception she would get when she was released but “my cousin ran towards me with outstretched arms and hugged me.” This is rare in the book. Too often relatives shun the family member returning. Monica is the one who “felt better” after telling her story, “the lump has lifted.”

One woman found life in prison “terrible” and she probably speaks for them all. There were guards who beat them on the soles of their feet and using abusive cruel language. Their sanitary needs were often ignored and food was often carelessly prepared. But the loneliness and sense of separation from their children was the hardest to bear. Jane wrote, “sometimes I failed to write a letter to my children because I soaked the writing sheets with tears.”

And it is Jane who wrote these even more painful words when she came out, “My family is always scolding my children, and always reminding them that I went to prison.” And Fortunate says that, after her release, her husband introduced her to people as, “this woman here: she looks like a decent woman but she stole money and went to prison.”

Fortunate felt that “in Zimbabwe prisons are only concerned with inflicting physical pain. The real person, the inner person is left untouched and unchanged.”

The prison authorities would probably argue that they cannot hope to reach out individually to the 40,000 in Zimbabwe’s prisons but it remains true that this collection gives a bleak picture of rehabilitation in the country. The result is often a high rate of recidivism. Monica said “one young girl was released from jail on the 17th January and was back on the 27th.”

But this book is more than a catalogue of tragedy. It poses some hard questions and sets out some practical steps that could be taken to respond to the crisis.

• The government may plead a lack of resources but it continues to spend money on dealing with crimes committed and not with crime prevention. Would it be so difficult to include civic education in school syllabi? Children, especially girls, could learn their rights and duties in society.

So many women in these pages go into crime ‘innocently’, that is, seeing it as a simple way of helping their family without really hurting anyone else. Police officers are taught to deal with crime but not to educate the public to avoid crime. Magistrate Ollyn Nzuma gives a most amusing account of how people, mainly men, never get round to admitting their responsibility. In a case of rape a man says it happened when he saw a women by the river; ‘it is this woman who is wrong because she was naked and bathing.’ Eventually he might say, ‘I did it but it was not really my fault.’ People lie easily and all the time.

• And why are people so cruel in loading children with their parents’ crimes? Peter Mandiyanike, who eventually set up Prison Fellowship after his own time in prison, says, ‘my children suffered when I was in prison. They will never, never forget it. Everyone pointed a finger at them, laughing and mocking them.’ This too calls for civic education.

• People are ignorant of legal process and have no idea of pleading genuine mitigating circumstances. One woman was so upset she let the deadline for lodging an appeal slip by and spent years in prison when there were clear grounds for mitigation.

• Magistrates need to be gender sensitive and know that if they are women they are likely to be lenient to woman as they can see the pressures the accused is under. Male magistrates on the other hand are likely to be hard on women as they, perhaps unconsciously, see the crime from a male perspective. The reverse can also be true, when a female magistrate judges a male accused and a male magistrate a female.

• “Society does not expect a woman to go to prison,” says magistrate Ollyn Rudo Nzuma in the most illuminating piece in this collection, and Julie Stewart tells us women make up just 3.5 per cent of the prison population in Zimbabwe. There are many cases in this book where the husband goes once or twice to visit his wife in prison and then backs off and often looks for another woman. Even the woman’s own family leave her alone without visiting. So a person who has been used to having family and her own children with her constantly is suddenly cut off and there are virtually no counselling services to help her.

• Another issue that burns through these pages is the cultural one: traditional customary law aimed at compensation and healing in the community. The chief was more concerned with the survival of the group than the punishment of the individual. So compensation loomed large as a way of healing and reintegration of the offender into the group. Our modern penal system pays little attention to compensation and it forcibly removes the offender from society – and in the case of women – from their own children. Fainos Mangena, in a recent study of retributive punishment in Zimbabwe, makes a strong case for moving away from retributive punishment, most starkly exercised in the death penalty, and regaining the traditional idea of collective responsibility. Ollyn Nzuma says we need a complete overhaul of our judicial system.

• Of the 33 women whose stories appear here I cannot remember any who could be described as middle class. It is the poor who suffer the most from our penal system. They do not know their rights and they cannot afford defence lawyers.

These pages cry out to us to wake up to the society we have created. It is not a fair one nor is it compassionate. We have many caring and compassionate magistrates and prison guards in our country, but they are not enough to tip the balance towards a change of heart in the structures and procedures which weigh so heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable.

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Post published in: Arts