Prisoners Get Amnesty To Reduce Jail Crowding In Zimbabwe

HARARE, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- Congestion in Zimbabwe's prisons is set to ease a bit after President Robert Mugabe acceded to pleas by prison authorities to pardon more than 1,500 prisoners.

Mugabe granted the amnesty last month, but the Zimbabwe Prison Service is still identifying 1,544 prisoners to release. Zimbabwe's prisons are congested because the crime rate has escalated due to the country's economic collapse, prison officials have said.

A senior justice ministry official told journalists Wednesday that Mugabe's clemency would benefit all convicted female prisoners and juveniles, but excludes criminals facing serious charges including rape or any sexual offenses, carjacking, conspiracy, armed robbery, murder and stock theft.

"As a short-term relief option to try and contain some of these challenges seriously and negatively impacting on the effective and efficient administration of prisons, a proposal to have a general amnesty was granted to inmates," said David Mangota, the Justice Ministry permanent secretary, of Mugabe's decision.

The country's 42 prisons have a capacity for 13,000 inmates but are currently holding 17,000.

As a result, the Prison Service has not been able to supply adequate rations to inmates. In April, a documentary showed half-naked, skeletal prisoners wasting away from hunger and diseases in some facilities.

Prison officials said they are also strapped for cash, causing "challenges" in fulfilling basic needs for inmates, which include food, clothing and bedding, toiletries and transport, among others.

One of the country's largest detention facilities, Khami Prison, has had its water cut off because the Prison Service hasn't paid its water bills, lawyers complained Wednesday. Sources said those bills now total more that U.S. $230,000.

"Offenders incarcerated should be treated humanely and with dignity in matters of health care, personal hygiene, sanitary, ablution requirements and general living conditions," said Josphat Tshuma, president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe.

Khami Prison is located about 500 kilometers (310 miles) southwest of the Zimbabwean capital of Harare and holds more than 2,000 inmates. The water disconnection raises the possibility that diseases such as cholera could break out, the Law Society said. Last year, a number of prisoners died due to various diseases related to lack of water, hunger and inhuman and unhygienic conditions, the group charged.

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