Our prisons and police holding cells are grossly overcrowded with convicts and trial-awaiting prisoners. Too many inmates are being crammed into tiny cells with adverse effects on the hygiene of these souls as well as their security. The problem is compounded by the present escalation in crime as poverty and unemployment continue to take their toll. The justice system is also not helping the situation, by taking too long to resolve cases, as well as poor police investigations. Some of our prisons are hellholes. They are breeding grounds for more serious crime. In some ways, they help harden attitudes and turn people into hardened criminals with the result that they end up coming back to prison each time they are released. Of course the majority of our prisons are doing a marvellous job through the various rehabilitation programmes that are available. By providing life-long skills to inmates, they prepare former inmates for life beyond the high walls of prison. There are those who have meaningfully taken advantage of the training provided and made good out of it. However, like the old saying, that old habits die hard, others are simply habitual criminals and continue to terrorise their communities even after being released from jail. They no longer fear serving time in jail. Worse still, there are people who are beyond redemption and are now hardened to the point of no return – in other words, sometimes we are responsible for turning our youth into criminals by keeping them for too long in prison in the company of hardened criminals. Usually, this happens when individuals are sent to prison or are detained for petty felonies with hardened criminals whose influence on these vulnerable individuals is at times irresistible under prison conditions. Prisons should be places for criminals who are a danger to society. They cannot be a place for everybody. Only hardened criminals and people who commit serious crime deserve jail time. Those who pose a threat to society and are a danger to public order should be locked up. By sending all offenders to prison, including those who commit petty crime, we are not only congesting our prisons and holding cells but also wasting valuable financial resources for their upkeep. Justice Annel Silungwe this week called for African countries to introduce community service as a way of punishment for those convicted of minor crimes. He stated that instead of sending people with such offences to prison, it would be better for these inmates to do community work to reduce congestion in prisons. We support his call, and would actually like to add that traditional courts should be empowered by being given the necessary resources to deal with some of the cases. These courts have proven that they can be effective in the administration of justice in some of our regions because of their ability to effect alternative forms of punishment for offences committed, instead of merely jailing offenders and thus creating untenable situations in our prisons.
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