Zimbabwe: praised for prison term reforms

PRISON Fellowship International (PFI) has commended the Zimbabwean Government for adopting the community service system as an alternative to jail sentences for minor offenders.

President of the PFI, Mr Ronald W. Nikkel, who was on a two-day visit to the country last week, said the community service system was a better alternative to a jail sentence, especially for first-time offenders.

It enables the community to participate in reforming an offender.

“Crime is a problem of the community and needed the community’s concerted effort to curb it,” said Mr Nikkel.

Having worked with prisoners and ex-prisoners for the past 12 years, Mr Nikkel believes “prisons were the greatest failure by many governments and building more prisons was a replication of the failure”.

The adoption of community service by Zimbabwe shows that the Government was not only concerned with punishing offenders, but their transformation as well, charged Mr Nikkel.

Prisons can be used for isolating dangerous criminals but not recommended for petty and first offenders, instead, they get recycled into hard-core criminals.

Mr Nikkel has been to 65 countries in the world and has had a chance to visit different kinds of prisons. “A prison is a prison, no matter how good or bad the conditions are. The effects on the community are the same.” Unless a community gets fully involved with offenders, the number would continue to grow. Research had shown 65 percent continued to commit crimes.

“Winston Churchill once said, ‘You can tell a lot about a society by looking at its prisons’. I witnessed the effectiveness of community involvement at a prison in Brazil, which is run by prisoners and the community.”

“In that particular prison, inmates were entrusted with the caring of each other and counselling those who have just been sentenced. The community provides moral and material support.”

“There is no one in handcuffs, but only four percent of the offenders who pass through this jail recommit crimes,” said Mr Nikkel.

The solution to the problem of crime was rooted in understanding what justice is. In such a case, PFI looks at the restoration of peace and harmony to the community.

“Justice without mercy is anarchy and mercy without justice is a weakness,” he added.

  • Despite the increased crime rate, the Prisons and Correctional Service continues to come up with reforms to de-congest prisons.
  • Apart from the community service scheme, Government has since approved changes to the Prisons Act, a move that will see prisoners accorded constitutional rights, in line with international norms and standards. The proposed system will also cater for vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, juvenile offenders, as well as the disabled, etc.
  • President Mnangagwa has always been in favour of de-congested prisons. As Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, he told Parliament in 2014: “…There are sentencing options that the Government is pursuing as well as rehabilitative measures.

The sentencing options comprise the following: imposing a fine in lieu of a sentence, community service for lighter offences and first offenders, granting of bail to unconvicted prisoners and de-congesting the juvenile population through the pre-trial diversion programme.

Recently, the Government launched the national pre-trial diversion programme, a systematic process of diverting children in conflict with the law from the mainstream judicial system to other rehabilitative methods.

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