Patrick Chitumba, Midlands Bureau Chief
Government is decongesting prisons and has banned visitors for prisoners following a surge in Covid-19 cases among inmates and prison officers, especially in Bulawayo, Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services permanent secretary Mr Nick Mangwana has said.

The number of inmates will be reduced through a number of measures that include paying fines or community service, with only those who would have committed serious crimes going to jail.

Bulawayo prisons, Mr Mangwana said, are now Covid-19 epicentres as they have recorded the highest number of cases among prisoners and prison officers in the country.

In an interview yesterday on ZBC’s 95.4 FM popularly known as Central Radio in Gweru, where he was discussing measures put in place by Government to stop the spread of Covid-19, the permanent secretary said a prison is not the right place to be in at this moment.

Mr Mangwana said Government wants to reduce the prison population as much as possible because there are increased chances of getting infected by Covid-19 in jail, especially in Bulawayo prisons. “Prisons in the country are not safe in terms of the spread of Covid-19 especially Bulawayo prisons which are now Covid-19 epicentres,” said Mr Mangwana without giving specific numbers.

However, last month the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) said 666 cases, 43 inmates and 23 prison officers at Bulawayo Prison had tested Covid-19 positive.

Mr Mangwana said prisons now have red zones where positive cases are isolated and green zones for those not infected.

“A prison is a difficult place to be in right now. Visitors have been banned and we are working on decongesting the prisons through a method called shrinkage. We are talking of rehabilitation of offenders rather than punitive measures. We are making sure that prisons don’t take new inmates as we look at other alternative ways of punishing people who would have committed crimes and these include community services and payment of a fine because we know that a prison is the last place to be in at the moment,” he said.

“We have nearly 15 000 passing through our quarantine centres being fed and provided with toiletries. Initially they were staying for 21 days and once in a while a supply truck takes a long time to come causing some disgruntlement among returnees some of whom end up absconding. People who absconded, which is bad, are less than 400 out of about 15 000, that 400 is too many.”

The permanent secretary said Government has never cooked up Covid-19 statistics.

Mr Mangwana said figures released by the Ministry of Health and Child Care everyday were accurate and there was no need for Government to give inaccurate figures since it has a role to protect people.

“The statistics are as accurate as possible. They are as accurate as they inform us. If people don’t inform us, we will not know and we can’t do any contact tracing and so we will not know the level of infection in the community,” he said.

Mr Mangwana said Government is worried about the surge in Covid-19 cases and that is why it is taking precautionary measures like the curfew imposed to mitigate against the spread of the virus.

“The containment measures are not restrictive at all,” said Mr Mangwana.