We need it now! Interrogating the concept of an open prison for female inmates with children in Zimbabwe
Shumba Mavhembu, Patricia
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This dissertation is about realising equality for female inmates in the Zimbabwean prison system; it identifies that there is only one open prison1 for male inmates yet female inmates, especially those with children and the children themselves would benefit greatly from an open prison facility. Further, it calls upon the state to address the chasm between theory and practice when it comes to the implementation of the open prison for female inmates, thereby addressing the discrimination of female inmates that has been prevailing for the past 15 years. Key to the researcher’s insights and findings is the fact that she is a Legal Officer and a Superintendent with the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS) and has a background in the issue of open prisons by virtue of being a member of the Open Prison Selection Committee. The writer draws from her experience and professional status and uses the women’s law approach to take female inmates as the starting point to effectively reveal the imbalance between facilities for male and female inmates. Employing the women’s law approach throughout her research, she interviewed female inmates with children in prison and at home to explore their lived realities in the conventional prison system. Other methodological approaches, such as the human rights approach, sex and gender analysis and the Actors and Structures were invoked as complementary approaches to the unique and broad women’s law approach. For instance, she also interviewed key informants within and without the prison system to take on board their perceptions regarding the implementation of the open prison for female inmates. The findings showed that female inmates are usually the primary care givers to their children; hence their incarceration impacts negatively on both them and their children. Further, children of incarcerated mothers constitute an invisible and vulnerable lot as the criminal justice system seems to focus on the criminal mother while forgetting about the best interests of their children. The children who get into prison with their mothers are exposed to the harsh conditions of conventional prison life and they tend to “serve” their mother’s sentence, while those children left at home lose parental care, risking physical and sexual abuse and neglect from alternative care givers, coupled with loss of contact with their incarcerated mothers. All this is exacerbated by the lack of government programmes specifically targeting such children and the unavailability of an open prison for female inmates which would reduce the challenges associated with a conventional prison. It emerged that female inmates are confined to gendered rehabilitation activities, such as gardening and hairdressing, which do not attract a wider market and consequently income. The study concluded by calling for: i) an open prison for female inmates as it would address most of the challenges faced by female inmates with children in the conventional prison system. ii) Application of the best interest of the child in the treatment of children throughout the criminal Justice system. iii) Non-gendered rehabilitation activities for female inmates and iv) Increased use of non-custodial sentences for deserving female offenders. All this would enable Zimbabwe to comply with her obligations to protect gender equality and the best interests of the child as provided in the Constitution and international conventions.