WHEN the master of ceremonies announced the arrival of President Lungu at Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison last week , the inmates could not believe what they had just heard.
The prisoners watched in disbelief as the President and his entourage made his way into the prison grounds. Some inmates were heard asking each other if indeed it was the Zambian Head of State who had paid them a visit.
When it became clear that President Lungu was in their midst, the inmates started chanting, ‘Chagwa,’ ‘Chagwa’, the Head of State responded by raising his arm much to the delight of the prisoners
From the prisoners’ reaction it was clear that President Lungu’s visit had come as a surprise.
The prisoners were also happy to see the President because at the time he served as Home Affairs Minister, they had asked him to address some of their problems.
On January 13, 2013 death row inmates caused panic among prison warders after they protested demanding to know whether or not they would be executed.
The prisoners also demanded that they be addressed by Mr Lungu who was then Home Affairs minister.
Among the problems raised by the inmates was the issue of over-congestion which saw a room which was supposed to be shared by two people being occupied by over seven inmates.
The prisoners complained that as at January 2013 the number of condemned inmates stood at 361, which was inhuman.
The inmates lamented that the courts had continued handing down death sentences when the cells for the condemned prisoners were not being expanded.
But Mr Lungu at the time called for calm among the prisoners, adding that the Government was working towards decongesting the death row section.
He said the ministry of Home Affairs was also engaging then late president Michael Sata to see if some prisoners could be released on parole and reaffirmed that the Government would ensure their plight was addressed.
In April 2014, former vice -president Guy Scott who visited the prison described the deplorable conditions for prisoners at Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison as hell on earth and that the Government would come up with a lasting solution.
Dr Scott further said there was need to state clearly and explain to Zambians whether those on death row would be executed or not, adding that he would present the matter before Cabinet.
Clearly, when President Lungu visited Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison he was aware of the problems besetting the facility.
Apart from commuting the death sentence on the 322 prisoners who openly wept upon hearing the good news, President Lungu said the Government was working tirelessly to resolve the challenges of overcrowding so as to improve the welfare of the inmates.
He pointed out that overcrowding makes it difficult for the Prison Service to observe the United Nations (UN) minimum standard rules and other international protocols.
He revealed that the Government was determined to amend the Zambia Prisons Services Act, CAP 97 to include provisions that will facilitate the construction of prisons on a public, private partnership.
The President said the amending of the Zambia Prisons Services Act would help in addressing congestion and improving infrastructure for inmates.
“We will ensure that we build on our efforts of resolving the challenge of overcrowding and improving the state of our prisons, “ he said.
And commenting on his decision to commute the sentences of the 322 condemned inmates, President Lungu said this was in accordance to Article 56 of the Constitution of Zambia and advised the pardoned inmates to take advantage of the training programmes being offered at the facility.
Mr Lungu said the Government was committed to improving the dignity of prisoners by making prisons more habitable and pledged that his Government would strive to improve services in all the correctional and rehabilitation institutions.
President Lungu who also visited the condemned section further said the skills which inmates will acquire will help them to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.
And James Musonda, who spoke on behalf of other prisoners paid tribute to President Lungu for showing love and care towards the inmates and appealed to him to continue with the same spirit.
Among those in attendance during President ‘s visit were Special Assistant for Press and Public Relations Amos Chanda, Home Affairs Deputy Minister Panji Kaunda, Central Province deputy Minister Davis Chisopa, Permanent Secretary Edwidge Mutale, District Commissioners and senior Government officials.
And the Human Rights Commission (HRC) said it is delighted with the move taken by Mr Lungu to commute the death sentences.
Commission Director, Florence Chibwesha in a statement said the decision is a clear demonstration that President Lungu will not depart from the direction taken by his predecessors.
Ms Chibwesha said in light of this action, the Commission was calling upon Government to take the extra step and accede to the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which requires State Parties to abolish the death penalty.
She said Zambia needed to domesticate the option protocol to ensure that the Judiciary did not continue handing down death sentences as a matter of law.
Ms Chibwesha said the Commission was not in support of the maintenance of the death penalty as submitted to the technical committee that was drafting the Zambian Constitution in 2012.
Clearly , the decision by the President to commute the death sentences brought a smile on the faces of the prisoners.
Picture by EDDIE MWANALEZA
Times of Zambia