The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has started rehabilitating some of the dilapidated Zimbabwe prisons, most built during the colonial era. The first one to be refurbished — Mlondolozi Prison, about 500 kilometers southwest of Harare — houses mentally ill inmates.
Among the improvements, the prison now has better ventilation and natural lighting within patients' cells, as well as improved water and sanitation facilities, according to Thomas Merkelbach, the head the ICRC in Zimbabwe. In addition, there is more space for rehabilitation activities, and kitchens have been upgraded to improve cooking capacity and energy efficiency.
The work is being done by Zimbabwe prison artisans and ICRC engineers.
Investing in improvements for mental health patients first was a clear choice, according to Merkelbach.
"Mlondolozi is a special institution," he said. "In a way, here you have patients that are doubly disadvantaged. On one hand, they are on the wrong side of the law. On top of that, they are mentally ill. In an institution like this, you have to really be able to care for your patients. They are patients, but they are inmates first and foremost. So, it was the obvious choice when the Zimbabwe prisons asked us if we would support this here. We said yes."
Mlondolozi Prison, built in the late 1970s, is one of many deteriorating facilities for inmates in Zimbabwe. Courts have declared that some of the detention places — including police cells — are not suitable for human habitation. However, inmates continue to live there.
Moses Chihobvu, the deputy head of Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services, says Harare wants prison conditions to be improved, if funds permit.
"With the assistance of non-governmental organizations, like what the ICRC has done, we are getting somewhere," he said.
He added that all prisons built after Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 meet the minimum standards of habitable facilities.