A fortnight ago, the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services had one of its biggest annual events — the Family Week.
The event gives inmates a chance to be with their families uninterrupted; they get to mix and mingle with long-lost friends, seek the forgiveness of foes, and reconnect with children and parents.
But not many families and friends showed up this year. At Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, only 412 of the around 2 500 inmates had visitors.
What could be the reason? Forgotten? Lost? Rejected?
Assistant Principal Correctional Officer, Chaplain Tongesai Katsvairo, is concerned about this low turnout.
“It is sad that most families have not embraced the week we thought should be loved and utilised by most. Of the 2 500 inmates we have here, less than 20 percent received visitors which raised a concern to us,” said Chaplain Katsvairo.
The chaplain said the inmates who regularly received visitors throughout the year were largely the ones who also received guests during Family Week.
He feels Zimbabwean society is yet to appreciate that inmates fare better both inside and upon release if families and friends lent their support to them.
“While economic challenges contribute for the failure of families to pay visits to their relatives, for many it is about stigma . . . and they ignore the fact that this is a correctional service where many are transformed.”
With family and friends abandoning inmates, it is even harder to get the acceptance of potential employers upon release.
Chaplain Katsvairo says this results in many ex-convicts reverting to crime — landing them in jail again.
“While our laws need to be reviewed from the legislative level the society and employment circles also need rebranding. For example when one is looking for a job, the employer requests for a police record or clearance meaning that they are not prepared to employ someone who has a criminal record,” explained Katsvairo.
While prisons focus much on the rehabilitation of inmates, the officer advocates for the rehabilitation of employers as well.
He said more than 90 percent of inmates attain qualifications from workshops and courses while in prison, but are unable to use these qualifications after they are released.
“Our prisons can never be decongested if something is not done in line with rehabilitation of potential employers out there. Their mentality needs to be worked on, there is need for flexibility in their employment criteria to uphold tolerance and accommodate the ex-cons.”
There is another oft unstated problem.
“There are some inmates who are diagnosed to be mental patients and under such circumstances they are not sentenced but they undergo treatment in here and once the doctors confirm they are well, we call their families to come and collect them.”
But some families do not show up. Others even ask the ZPCS to confine their relatives for life.
“Even churches stigmatise. We have situations whereby many come here for visits or donations and they promise to come back but they never do but it is not only material things that the inmates need, even prayers or just a day socialising with them is enough,” added the chaplain.
Business Council of Zimbabwe president Mr Langton Mabanga acknowledges prison authorities’ efforts to equip inmates with academic and skills training.
However, he believes the prisons need to collaborate with vocational training centres, colleges and universities.
“There is need for collaboration with tertiary and higher education institutions so that they are able to structure curricula activities and modules that are more inclined towards entrepreneurship.
“They should craft enterprise and business models that can enable one to be their own boss, be sustained and supervised (Incubation) after sentence,” said Mr Mabanga.
While it is a process for the potential employers to fully embrace ex-convicts, Mr Mabanga believes entrepreneurship will bridge the gaps.
“We understand fully well there is need for capital injection which is why we are emphasising more on projects that can be continuously assessed for accountability.
“With time and continuous assessment, relations based on mutual trust will be born. In the end the existing gaps are suppressed.”
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