Cries from prison: Ex-prisoner’s tale

HARARE – An exhausted Robson Jack mills around Harare Magistrates’ Courts, his socks filled with handwritten letters — cries from prisoners requesting food aid, legal assistance and pleas for prayers.

He calmly approaches bystanders, pleading if they know one of the inmates’ relatives who was said to be a frequent photographer at the courts. 

“Mungazive Benjamin Chidziva? (Would you know Benjamin Chidziva?),” he asks before a tuck-shop attendant advises he can assist.

He breathes a long sigh of relief knowing his brave but suicidal act of smuggling letters out of Harare Central Prison may not have been in vain after all.

Had he been caught, the offence would have earned him no less than two months’ imprisonment, effectively meaning more time in overcrowded cells.

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But for the inmates he had spent the better part of his seven years’ imprisonment getting to know, it was one of the easiest decisions he has ever made.

“The night before my release I was given the clothes I came in with so that I could wash them for the next day. That’s how I was able to cut my socks and put the letters inside,” he said with a wry smile.

The 43-year-old left behind a wife and two children when he was incarcerated but his immediate family has not been his first port of call, choosing to first assist friends he met behind bars. 

“I want to surprise them,” he said of his family. “They don’t know I am out yet.”

After buying him a drink, this reporter escorts him to his home in Dzivarasekwa to witness the reaction of his family.

However, only his child is at home and the joy is palpable.

Jack takes the Daily News on Sunday through his time in prison which was punctuated by lows insisting he struggles to recall of any bright sparks.

He bemoans the imbalanced diet, inhuman living conditions and general lack of hygiene adding that getting out alive was nothing short of a miracle.

“In prison if you wake up at night thirsty you are forced to drink from the toilet cistern as we are not allowed containers inside the cells. When we would get food, one person would flush while others wash their hands. It was no joke,” he said, adding: “I saw prisoners dying because there was no access to health care and medicine.  Two of my friends died of typhoid last week,” he claimed.

“I was even afraid for my life but thank God I made it out alive.”

Jack said meat had become a rare commodity for inmates.

“I can’t remember the last time we had meat. At one time we went for a very long time eating Sadza and Royco mixed with water,” he said.

“I stayed at Chikurubi for four years before I was moved to Harare Central Prison to finish my sentence.  It was a difficult time.”

Jack said twice temperatures soured so much that he attempted to escape but was caught.

“In prison there are seniors, those in the D-class with lengthy sentences who may never get out alive, they fuel the flame of escaping because they know they have a very slim chance of life after prison.”  

Being imprisoned is a terrifying thought, not only is one suddenly ostracised from society, but it involves being  thrown right to the bottom of the social ladder — and if anything happens to you, no one is going to bat an eyelid.

It is no surprise why sodomy is basically a normal part of prison life.

Jack is, however, quick to suggest that contrary to public belief of rampant rape, “it was always done with a mutual understanding”.

Inside, Jack says he learnt the ropes of being an electrician, a trade he hopes to practise now that he is on the outside.

The Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) are currently providing empowerment programmes despite inadequate funding.

These include inmates receiving educational and professional qualifications as well as various rehabilitation activities.

One of the rehabilitation centres is Connemara Open Prison which houses male inmates who are allowed to go on home leave during their prison terms.

Through these programmes a Harare Central Prison inmate, Agrippa Guti, is now part of the Dynamos Football Club set up after impressing during a social match between the Harare giants and prisoners last month.

However, many government departments do no support the rehabilitation programme.

Currently, government institutions do no employ ex-convicts rendering the rehabilitation programmes being done by ZPCS academic.

ZPCS also wants to see the justice system doing more to support their rehabilitation programmes by offering parole.

“It would come in a big way,” said ZPCS deputy officer commanding Harare Metropolitan Province Elizabeth Banda in a recent tour of prisons by parliamentarians.

“In other countries one is given a certain period on probation where they are monitored to see how best they have fared in terms of rehabilitation (before you are let back onto the streets).

“It would do us a world of good otherwise we are just wasting resources.”

It remains to be seen which route Jack will take after serving time and trying to make ends meet in a system that does not support ex-convicts.

But one thing he is certain of — his socks will go down as one of his greatest memorabilia.

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