Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
NEARLY 1 000 inmates with mental illness are stuck at Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS) centres across the country with the numbers continuing to balloon following delays by mental health boards to review their condition for possible release.
Drug and substance abuse has been attributed to the growing number of mental health related illnesses in the country. Bulawayo is facing a growing challenge of drug and substance abuse among its young with statistics indicating that Ingutsheni Central Hospital attends to at least 250 patients a month.
Lately, Zimbabwe has been experiencing an upsurge in drug abuse cases and most of those abusing the drugs are young people.
Against this background, Government has directed that all efforts must be made to address the supply of drugs.
President Mnangagwa, on National Youth Day in February, declared war against the menace and also announced the setting up of a fund to fight drug abuse. He also launched the National Anti-Drug and Substance Abuse Campaign.
In an interview yesterday, ZPCS Commissioner-General Moses Chihobvu said prison and correctional facilities are overwhelmed with an increasing number of mental health patients.
The ZPCS’ major mental health institutions are Mlondolozi at Khami Prisons in Bulawayo and Chikurubi Psychiatric Unit at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare.
“The increasing number of mental health patients in our prisons is a cause for concern. Although we have a special board and mental tribunal board sitting to assess such people, they are actually doing it at a slow pace,” he said.
“The inmates’ fate lies in the hands of the mental tribunal board, as they are not eligible for amnesty in the absence of intensive assessment.”
There are fears that a number of the inmates with mental illnesses might end up relapsing without hope of being released.
Comm-Gen Chihobvu said the swelling number of inmates is now straining the facilities and creating congestion.
“We want these patients to be determined by the board as soon as possible because the number of patients continues to increase, which is now a worrying trend and our facilities are now strained. We are looking after around 900 patients in our prisons and in Harare alone at Chikurubi Maximum Prison we have 500 patients yet the carrying capacity is 150,” he said.
“The tribunal should take us seriously when it comes to this issue of mental patients.”
The mental tribunal board which has the mandate to determine the release of these inmates through fitness evaluation, has been delaying sitting resulting in congestion at prisons as the numbers continue ballooning.
Section 68 of the Mental Health Act provides for the establishment of mental health hospital boards. The board of the institution is the first port of call where one’s case is reviewed for possible release.
If satisfied that the patient can be released, it makes the necessary recommendations to the tribunal.
When the tribunal sits, it considers a patient’s case and then makes a final decision on whether to release the patient or order further detention.
Ms Netsai Matindike, a forensic psychiatric nurse (FPN) at Mlondolozi Mental Health Institution said there are 310 inmates who have been locked up at the facility awaiting competence evaluation by the mental tribunal board.
“Currently, we have 300 males, 10 females at Mlondolozi and we are preparing for a special board that will be coming this week. Last year, the tribunal sat twice while the special board sat four times and by so doing, we managed to release 120 patients,” she said.
Among those released last year include Ms Lesion Siziba, who had spent almost a decade at the institution awaiting competence evaluation by the mental tribunal board.
In 2020, Ms Siziba approached the Bulawayo Hight Court challenging her “unjustified” detention.
Ms Siziba committed infanticide in 2004 after suffering from post-natal depression.
In her court application citing VP Chiwenga, in his capacity as Health and Child Care Minister, Ms Siziba argued that she had recovered and now eligible for release. She sought an order compelling VP Chiwenga to set up a mental health board at the institution to review her condition for possible release.
Ms Matindike said 118 mental patients kept at the prison have since recovered and now eligible for release and reintegration into society.
“We are expecting both the special and tribunal boards, to release about 116 males and two females who are due. We are busy preparing for the special board. The patients are responding well to our treatment and most of them are now mentally stable except for the newly admitted ones who still need time to be treated,” she said. — @mashnets