“The congestion is beyond what you can believe. The smell is indescribable. It’s so filthy you can’t even imagine.” This is how Chilufya Tayali, the head of the Economic and Equity Party, described his recent stint in a Zambian jail.
Tayali, a minor opposition figure, was arrested in Lusaka last month. He was charged with defaming Zambia’s police chief. While waiting to appear in court, he briefly shared a tiny cell with fellow opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who is on trial for treason — as well as with a few dozen other prisoners.
Tayali spent five nights in one of the holding cells at Kabwata police station. The cell measured just 3m by 3.5m, but he said there were never fewer than 24 people inside, and sometimes as many as 40. The walls were caked with grease and dirt, and food was nonexistent.
“When we [opposition leaders] were in there, a lot of the youngsters got lucky because people were bringing food for us and we could share it with them,” he said.
Tayali spent most of his time inside standing, because there was simply no space to sit. At night, detainees would lie down in the shape of a seven, their bodies stacked tightly against each other to squeeze into the cell. Ablutions were basic: the pit toilet in the corner was encrusted with faeces and had no running water. Occasionally guards would pass a bucket of water into the cell, and prisoners would attempt to clear toilet blockages with a stick, if one was provided — or their hands, if not.
Although Tayali has been released on bail, Hichilema remains inside, and has been moved between prisons several times. He is currently in the Lusaka Central Correctional Facility, which houses both convicted and remand prisoners. Conditions there are slightly better, but his lawyers still had to go to court to force the prison to allow him reading material and visits from his family.
“At one point in Hichilema’s detention, he was held in what is practically solitary confinement,” said his lawyer, Mulambo Haimbe.
“He was held in an isolated place alone, incommunicado. But he remains strong and he understands that this process is essentially meant to punish him even before he faces the court process.”
Haimbe stressed that all prisoners suffer from the notoriously poor conditions in Zambian jails. “This is not just because it’s Hichilema. Any detainee will attest to the fact that the conditions are quite deplorable,” he said.
Zambia’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded, and the problem keeps getting worse. In December 2016, correctional services commissioner Percy Chato announced record high numbers, with more than 20 000 prisoners in a prison system designed for just 8 350 inmates.
“Overcrowding results in undesirable conditions, which impact negatively on the correctional activities,” Chato said, with deft understatement.
Health Minister Chitalu Chilufya was more explicit about the dangers of overcrowding. “Congestion is a threat to public health, and so working with the judiciary and the Zambia Correctional Service will ensure that we decongest our prisons because that is a factor that will fuel disease outbreaks,” he said, speaking at the opening of a new clinic for prisoners in Livingstone last year.
The Prisons Care and Counselling Association, a local nongovernmental organisation, has been lobbying for the government to take more radical steps to ease the congestion. Executive director Godfrey Malembeka wants only the most dangerous criminals behind bars, and for people with more minor convictions to be sentenced to fines, suspended sentences or community service instead of jail time.
Malembeka has also urged the government to release all HIV-positive prisoners. More than 27% of Zambian prisoners are HIV positive — double the national HIV prevalence rate — but medical care ranges from limited to nonexistent.