“Prisons Are Unique Because They Have Many Vulnerable Groups”


Patricia Mavhembu is a Legal Officer with the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS). She recently participated in a professional training on the protection of vulnerable and marginalized people in Zimbabwe. The five-day workshop was a joint initiative from the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in collaboration with CALR (Centre for Applied Legal Research, Zimbabwe). We sat down with her to ask a few questions.

What do you do?

– In my role, I offer legal advice to the management of prisons in Zimbabwe. That includes giving guidance on issues pertaining to the rights of inmates who by virtue of incarceration constitute a vulnerable group.

– We also look at law reform, and my office is currently reviewing the Prisons Act and prison regulations. The main idea is to align the provisions of the Prisons Act and  the regulations to the Zimbabwean constitution, which is fairly new (enacted in 2013), as well as international best practices on prison management. We also offer human rights training for officers and facilitate at the Prisons Staff college focusing on human rights and the rights of prisoners.

What were your takeaways from the training?

– I particularly found the time we spent going over the sections of the constitution that emphasize the rights of vulnerable groups to be beneficial. As a lawyer, I have a copy of the constitution, and I’ve been going through it, but I like the specific discussions we had and the work we did on interpreting some of the provisions that are more relevant to my line of duty. It’s given me more confidence and clarity in how to advise management in prisons.

– The focus on human rights was empowering. We talked about the rights of women; we have female inmates. We talked about the rights of children; we have children accompanying their mothers in prison.We talked about the rights of the elderly and disabled people also. We also talked about the rights of non-nationals and we have detained immigrants in our facilities as well. Thus prisons are unique as they accommodate all these vulnerable groups and getting training on their rights is critical. So this was all very relevant.

What challenges exist for corrections facilities in Zimbabwe?

– There are quite a number of challenges associated with the general problem of underfunding of the prison system, ranging from diet for inmates to bedding and clothing to overcrowding. This is not only a problem for Zimbabwe, but many African countries. There is also need for construction of an open prison for female inmates so as to improve their prison conditions as some are pregnant and others have children accompanying them to prison. However, there is a challenge of lack of funding although the government approved its construction.

Part of the training was to promote “mini-projects” to work on in the area of human rights. Can you discuss that?

– Yes, during the training I had a chance to speak with a colleague from the Legal Resources Foundation, a local NGO, and we’ll be looking into how to strengthen our partnership. We’ve been working together before, but now we want to do more to identify prisoners who could need legal representation and to get them in touch with this organisation so that they are  represented. Further, we can also consider mainstreaming human rights for vulnerable groups into the joint trainings that we can hold together.

– I also spoke to a representative from the Ministry of Health and Childcare and we agreed to work on issues to do  with inmates with mental illness. We may do a review of prisoners with mental challenges to see those who should be released from our facilities and try to address the delays that are sometimes associated with their assessments and release, and we will work on an action plan to address issues of mental health in our prisons. We are also considering the issue of mental health assessments for juvenile inmates who are currently being assessed by the psychologists as this may go a long way in terms of identifying and assisting juvenile offenders with mental health challenges.

– I also spoke to a representative of the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and  Rehabilitation of Offenders (ZACRO), and we are considering to work around the issue of reintegration of offenders especially female offenders who face various challenges upon reintegration. We might need to bring in traditional leaders for purposes of raising awareness on the need for communities to accept ex-inmates.

– I will meet again with these individuals to come up with a clearer plan before we travel to Sweden for the second part of the training and there is still room to explore more collaborations for mini-projects.

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s work in Zimbabwe is supported financially by Swedish Development Cooperation (Sida).