THE walls are massive and high……. Escape is not an option here.
You enter here, there is no escape until you are discharged or until you die.
Yes there have been one or two inmates who have escaped in the past, but success is almost zero.
Mukobeko is the highest correctional facility in Zambia with maximum security.
It is located in the central Zambian town of Kabwe.
The name Mukobeko comes from the local Lenje language and it means punishment.
It was coined in the 1800s way before the colonial masters stepped foot in Zambia.
Today, Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison holds some of Zambia’s most feared men and women, those who are on death row and those on life imprisonment.
Behind those huge walls is life, life that many don’t understand.
Stigma against these inmates is very common in society.
Recently, this reporter was granted unrestricted access by the Zambia Correctional Service to document the goings in this prison.
This massive prison complex is divided into various sections.
There is a section for those serving life sentences, one for those serving dozens of years and another area for industries such as carpentry, tailoring and poultry.
But the Condemn Section is the most secretive of them, one which is rarely exposed to the outside world.
It was once described as “Hell On Earth” by then Vice President Dr. Guy Scott after he toured it a few years ago.
Located in the western part of the complex, the Condemn Section is home to over 400 men who are waiting to be executed.
This is against the initial capacity of less than 48.
Wearing their distinctive white uniforms, death row inmates spend years in this facility waiting for the inevitable.
They are the only inmates who know their fate…….Death.
However, since the 1990s, no inmate has been hanged in Zambia as successive Presidents have refused to sign the death warrant.
In the Condemn Section, congestion is a big problem.
Former Deputy Minister of Justice Keith Mukata is one of the men waiting to be executed.
In 2018, he was sentenced to death by the Lusaka High Court over the death of a security guard at his law firm.
Mukata, a lawyer by profession, was at the time serving his second term as Chilanga Member of Parliament.
His transfer to Mukobeko, to serve his death sentence, triggered a by-election in his constituency which led to Maria Langa being elected as his successor.
“We are pleading with His Excellency the President to consider pardoning some of these men. They are always missing on lists of those being pardoned. There is something that this environment does to someone, we therefore ask for a second chance,” said Mukata as his fellow deathrow inmates clapped.
Mukata disclosed that in the past two years he has been in prison, he has reflected on his life and is currently studying to become a Pastor so that he can start ministering to his fellow inmates.
Whenever death row inmates have an opportunity to interact with prominent people from outside the prison, they do not waste time to show remorse.
Even when given chance to sing a song, their message is always the same: WE ARE SORRY.
Recently, National Guidance and Religious Affairs Minister Godfridah Sumaili visited the Condemn Section and saw for herself how congested the place is.
The Minister couldn’t hide her feelings.
“I have seen for myself the challenges you have. I will report to my superior so that we can see how we can help you,” said Reverend Sumaili.
Sleeping here is a challenge.
These men are forced to sleep in turns as space is limited.
They crowd in these small rooms like sardines.
This is why prison authorities are pleading for more pardons to decongest Mukobeko.
“The men in Condemn Section need pardons so that we can reduce on the numbers. We really have challenges with space and we are appealing to the powers that be to consider even commuting their sentences to life so that we can reduce on the numbers,” said Dr. Chisela Chileshe, the Commissioner General of the Zambia Correctional Service in an interview.
However, from this same Condemn Section are men who are on a mission to change the narrative about death row inmates.
Ten of them have come up with an entrepreneurial project called the Maximum Agriculture and Poultry Project –MAPP which is the first of its kind worldwide.
In 2018, they sought permission from prison authorities to utilize five hectares of idle land for a life changing project.
Within 10 months of its operations, the MAPP Project has seen an investment of K 1.5 million, money raised exclusively by inmates.
Today, MAPP boasts of 5,000 chicks in the poultry, 30 goats, several acres of eggplants, rape and onion.
A month ago, the inmates harvested 3,000 heads of cabbage.
And in the coming months, fish ponds will also be added.
And the brains behind this project is Mathew Mohan, a deathrow inmate who was convicted in 2013 for the 2009 murder of Sajjid Itowala, his business rival.
Instead of being bitter for being on death row, MOHAN, a staunch Catholic, has reformed and wants to help the Zambia Correctional Service reduce its expenses on food for inmates.
Through his idea, offices and a lecture theater have been built to help manage the MAPP Project.
“One day I sat in my cell in the Condemn Section and I saw a little bird fly in and feed its chicks. I told myself, if this little bird can find freedom in this jail, then I can also find something worthwhile to do,” said Mohan, a Zambian national of Indian descent.
His idea is not just making money for the Correctional Service.
He wants inmates who complete their jail terms to go home reformed and better placed for a life in society.
“Through the MAPP Project, we want to prepare inmates for society. We will equip them with skills and at the point of discharge, we will give them start-up capital so that they do not struggle were to start from out there,” he added.
Saidi Banda is another death row inmate who deputises Mohan on this project.
He too was convicted of murder and subsequently sentenced to death in 2011.
Having been on death row for nine years, Saidi has a vision of helping change the narrative for death row inmates.
“I have deeply reflected on my life and I want to be a better citizen. When I go back to society, I want to become a lecturer,” said Banda, who is currently in third year, studying Information Technology by distance education.
Colberty Singano is another inmate on the project.
He is serving a 30 year jail term for gender based violence.
At the MAPP Project, he manages the farm.
“My role here is to manage the farm. I supervise the inmates and outsiders we have employed in the farm and Iam also the custodian of everything in the stores,” he said.
The Mukobeko Maximum Agriculture and Poultry Project has become a pride for Mukobeko Prison which is infamously known for executions.
Authorities want this project to succeed.
“As Officer-In_Charge here at Maximum, am so proud of what these guys have done. It is a demonstration of what determined people can achieve,” he said.
What started like an idea by one Matthew Mohan on death row is now being supported by the highest level of the Zambia Correctional Service.
Just three years ago, the service transformed itself from a punitive one to a Correctional Service.
This was aimed at putting reformation at the heart of the institution as opposed to punishing inmates.
“The project the inmates are doing fits into the vision of the Correctional Service. We are no longer a Prison Service but a correctional one. This is why you see inmates doing all these innovations,” said Dr. Chileshe.
Ideally, a prison is not a place for employment.
It is a place where people who are condemned are kept away from society.
But the MAPP Project at Mukobeko has changed that narrative, it is providing employment for people from society.
Graduates holding degrees and those with diplomas have been queuing inside the prison to get interviewed for jobs.
And guess who have been interviewing these job seekers………………….. Death row inmates.
“When I walked in, I did not expect to be interviewed by inmates. And when I was…. It was awesome,” said Sibongile Phiri, a holder of a Bachelor in Sociology from the University of Zambia who queued at the MAPP Project offices to be interviewed for a job.
Another job seeker Edward Musenge said: “I did not expect to see inmates on the panel but am very happy the interview went well and I have high hopes I will get the job.”
For Shalom Mvula who studied Medicine, applying for a job inside prison was something she least expected in her life.
“Part of the vision for the MAPP Project is to implement good health for inmates and that is where my expertise comes in,” said Ms Mvula.
Apart from these graduates, the MAPP Project has also employed casual workers from the nearby community.
So far, 25 of them work on a daily basis in the fields, taking care of cabbages, egg plants, chickens and goats.
The MAPP Project is not just a local initiative, it has now attracted the highest level of interest from the Zambian government.
Zambia’s Vice President Inonge Wina was supposed to officially launch the project on 11th June this year.
However, she was represented by National Guidance and Religious Affairs Minister Godfridah Sumaili.
In the end, the Mukobeko Maximum Agriculture and Poultry Project has shown that prison walls can actually transform inmates into better citizens.
This is because prison life gives time for people to reflect and even come up with great ideas.
“I have a vision to replicate this project to all 10 provinces of Zambia. My plan is to create 10,000 jobs for people out there in society. We have demonstrated that it can be done and we will do it,” said Mohan.
As the sun sets over the Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison, the lights that lead to the MAPP Project will continue shining over a project which the initiators thought would not go beyond the high prison walls.
By Paul Shalala in Kabwe
The Zambian Analyst Blog
Pictures by Chambo Nguni