Some of Zimbabwe's prisons are unable to feed inmates or cater for their basic hygienic needs, the Mail & Guardian was told this week.
Edison Chihota, the chief executive of the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender, said that his association had discussed the issue of food with the Zimbabwe Prison Services.
The authorities had responded that prisons face funding challenges because they did not have a direct allocation from the fiscus.
At the height of the country's economic meltdown in 2008, prisoners were badly affected and an outbreak of cholera and food shortages claimed the lives of an undisclosed number of inmates.
A former inmate at Gweru's Hwahwa prison said conditions there are appalling. "We mostly received one meal a day and, occasionally, two."
He said prisoners survive on meals that family members bring them, but the food sometimes does not reach prisoners because warders steal it.
"There was rarely soap for washing uniforms, leading to outbreaks of lice and skin disease," he said.
Chihota said prisoners have an unchanging diet of sadza (thick mealie meal porridge) and sugar beans. The association has also noted deteriorating standards of hygiene and prisoners don't have toothpaste and soap. There was also a shortage of beds and blankets. "Only in prison hospitals is one assured of a bed," he said.
Justice and legal affairs deputy minister Obert Gutu said the government "is doing its level best" to deal with the situation.
The government is trying to comply with the provisions of statutory instrument 149/2011, which stipulates what prisoners should eat, but is not "on a sound financial footing to meet the obligations set out by the instrument", Gutu said.
He said the situation had improved tremendously compared with the 2006-2008 period and denied that prisoners receive one or two meals a day. "Prisoners now get three meals a day of porridge, sometimes bread and tea, cabbage, beans and other things."
Gutu said the government also had to consider the plight of prison officers, who struggle to find proper accommodation.
"We have more than 8 000 prison officers in Zimbabwe. They are faced with challenges with regard to accommodation and there is a need for the government to look at their plight as well."
Prison officials at Harare's remand prisons said delays in the prosecution of cases also lead to prison overcrowding.
"We have so many postponements," said one official, who asked not to be named. "There are cases where the state applies for an accused person to be remanded in custody for months while it gathers evidence."
A report that the portfolio committee on prisons presented to Parliament last year said that ablution facilities at some prisons were dysfunctional and that bad sanitary conditions in prisons in Bulawayo were being aggravated because the city council rationed water.
"The ablution facilities for Khami remand [prison] were said to be beyond repair. The situation was worsened by the lack of water to flush the system. All this was blamed on the unavailability of funds," the report said. – Additional reporting by the Mail & Guardian's Harare correspondent.