By Tendai Rupapa
Unpleasant situations where young children forget their mothers owing to prolonged absence caused by life issues like jail time is now a thing of the past, thanks to the advent of an open prison system for females.
Marondera Female Open Prison which opened its doors last week, becoming the first such facility in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) affords mothers a chance to bond with their children by sharing meals and even supervising their homework.
The open prison system marks the dawn of a new era in prisoner management.
It’s a departure from closed prisons where security is tight and interaction with prisoners always monitored.
The Marondera Female Open Prison comes after the success of a similar facility for men which opened its doors at Connemara in 2000.
Buildings at the female open prison site are new, modern and well-painted giving prisoners, prison wardens and visitors a warm feeling and breath of fresh air. All these are complemented by well-manicured gardens which instil hope in inmates.
Among major features at the prison is a kitchen hut that was built by the First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa who also provided essential traditional utensils.
The First Lady is the patron of the Prison’s Foundation Trust. She was appointed the patron in recognition of her mission to uplift and empower the country’s womenfolk.
According to Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS) Deputy Commissioner-General Dr Granisia Musango, an open prison system is a correctional programme which has minimal security measures in terms of escorts and physical security.
“It gives room to individuals for self-supervision thus developing a sense of responsibility. The system has its unique privileges such as movements without escorts, a more relaxed environment, physical touch with the outside world through home leave and unsupervised visits in preparation for reintegration.
“This is ideal for women since women being the cornerstone of the family, their presence matters in the management of family social issues. The longer she stays in a closed prison system where there are no such privileges to visit home will result in broken families,” she said.
Currently there are 30 women housed there, but upon completion of construction it is expected to house 500. For one to qualify, the ZPCS boss said, the inmates would have committed unclassified offences.
“One qualifies for Open Prison upon serving at least half of their sentence at a closed prison. Mothers with accompanying children have to satisfy some aspects of the criteria though the issue of babies is considered,” she said.
The prisoners are allowed 14-day home visits per quarter and they are not supervised while at home, but they are obliged to communicate to the authorities if need arises.
“They (inmates) engage in various rehabilitation activities. At Marondera they have life skills activities such as garment making, tailoring, hair dressing, farming (horticulture), and livestock rearing.
“The Government provides 100 percent of their basic needs and upkeep, the same as in a closed prison. However, they are allowed self-catering, they live in single rooms, they have access to entertainment (television, internet access), they can enrol with outside institutions of learning and they decide time to start and end their day unlike in a closed prison,” the ZPCS boss said.
Dr Musango added; “First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa was instrumental in pushing for the Open Prison System for the females since there was one for males. She became the Patron and established the Female Open Prison Foundation Trust tasked for resource mobilisation for the construction of the institution.
“She in her own right immensely donated materials for the cause and this included construction material, food and expertise. As patron, she officiated at the ground breaking ceremony and the official opening of the institution.”
The International Confederation of Women Lawyers (ICOWL) said it was pleased with the open prison for females.
“This is a new development which is a first in the SADC region, to have an open prison for women. We would like to commend those that worked towards it, in particular our First Lady, Amai Auxillia Mnangagwa and her team.”
“It is an excellent move towards rehabilitation of women and the promotion of gender equity as it has been years since men have enjoyed this privilege of visiting their family and exercising conjugal rights whilst incarcerated, yet women have been denied the same privileges. As ICOWL, we are looking into ways in which we can also work with this new open prison,” said Mrs Agness Chatsama who is the ICOWL spokesperson.
Officially opening the institution last week, the First Lady said it was worth mentioning that ZPCS had moved from the punitive way to a correctional thrust that caters for correctional approach, as dismissed from punishment.
This, she said, signifies the observance of rights of inmates as well as empowering them with knowledge and life skills which are focused on helping to prepare them for a decent life upon discharge from correctional institutions.
The mother of the nation said most females committed crimes of passion and it remained so disheartening that they always served their sentences in closed systems.
The First Lady said the female open prison would promote and help female inmates’ rehabilitation and reintegration pipeline, focusing on empowering and improving the moral character of a woman by extending opportunities that increase their self-esteem, so that they develop positive minds during and after their time in prison.
Open prisons, she said, allowed inmates access to vocational training programmes that offers and equip female inmates with different skills to help them after release.
“As the patron of the Zimbabwe Female Open Prison Foundation Trust, I am grateful for the strong support from everyone who contributed. Today’s ceremony therefore marks and serves as one of the key milestones to our combined effort. Let me appeal to the community, churches and civic organisations for your continued support. To the ZPCS, continue pursuing prison management best practices to satisfy the United Nations minimum standard rules on the treatment of inmates. To inmates qualified to be housed here, impress and justify your keenness of total transformation towards desirable behaviours,” she said.
ZPCS Commissioner-General Moses Chihobvu described the establishment of the female open prison as a milestone in their efforts towards a modernised prisons and correctional management approach.
“It is important to appreciate that women are by nature caregivers in families and communities at large, hence the idea of establishing such a facility enhances, promotes and bonds relationships with respective families. I want to accept that in spite of such a critical role, women have been omitted to benefit this preferential package of privileges. Resultantly, female inmates have continued their sentences under the closed system. However, today’s event marks a positive development in the observance of women’s inclusion and importance in our societies,” he said.
Inmates at the institution expressed delight at the breath of fresh air brought by an open prison.
Sibongile Manyati, who is doing time for robbery and has been in prison since 2019, could not hide her joy.
“What has happened here has pleased me because I am among women who have been lucky to get into an open prison. This is important for me as I once served in a closed facility. I want to thank the First Lady that we can now have a chance to visit our families that we separated with a long time ago,” she said with a broad smile.
Moreblessing Nyamutata, who has been behind bars since 2018 was on cloud nine.
“I am overjoyed with this open prison programme as it will allow us to visit our families and plan for them. The First Lady is helping us to do many income-generating projects to pay fees for our children even when we are in jail,” she said.