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As the tall metal gates at the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison psychiatric unit swing open, one is greeted by an unusual group of inmates.
Those who have been to an ordinary psychiatric unit or rehabilitation centre probably understand the nature of such an environment.
But at the prison, it is a different case altogether.
Stakes are a bit high as the place houses mentally challenged but convicted criminals or those awaiting trial.
Some of the inmates will be spotting new yet tattered prison apparel, which could be a clear sign of perpetual conflict, either among themselves or with prison officials.
Others exhibit violent tendencies.
In some instances, there are those who soil themselves.
Some lazily walk barefoot across the compound, while others “sunbathe” in the sweltering summer heat.
One could go on describing how unpleasant the place is, but imagine the challenge prison officials face on a daily basis in dealing with this group.
Well, it is now worse considering the numbers continue to swell.
Barely does a day pass without reports of a ghastly crime committed by suspected mentally challenged people.
The most common crimes involve murder, attempted murder and rape.
The Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS) spokesperson, Superintendent Meya Khanyezi, says there is an unprecedented increase in the number of inmates committed to psychiatric units at most of the country’s jails.
However, figures at the Chikurubi psychiatric unit have triggered concern among the authorities.
Chikurubi and Khami prisons, in Harare and Bulawayo, respectively, have ZPCS’ major psychiatric units.
Chikurubi has a maximum carrying capacity of 150 mentally challenged inmates at any given time, but currently houses more than 460 patients.
Reports suggest the figure continues to swell with each passing moment, which is naturally creating logistical nightmares for prison officials.
The inmates require special care and attention compared to their normal counterparts, thus, the need for more personnel, which automatically means stretching the wage bill.
“The numbers are ever growing and this shows that many people might be struggling with mental health issues out there, but without seeking medical attention,” notes Supt Khanyezi.
“The most common crimes committed by these patients are murder, attempted murder and rape.”
Of the total number of prisoners in the Chikurubi psychiatric unit, 60 percent are criminal mental patients, while the rest are detained mental patients.
Criminal mental patients are offenders found to have been mentally unstable when they committed crime and as such, they are not sentenced.
Instead, they undergo treatment behind bars and upon gaining stability, they are discharged.
Detained mental patients are those still appearing in court, waiting for medical confirmation that they are indeed psychologically unwell.
Some of the mental patients face multiple counts of heinous crimes like murder.
Reports suggest the majority of the criminal cases recorded were acts against public safety, whereby at least 89 775 offences were committed last year.
Over 400 suspected mental patients underwent psychological assessment in the past year.
The causes, according to ZPCS, of these mental health illnesses are biological, psychological, environmental and psycho-social.
“Some of our patients are treated for substance abuse induced disorders, depression and bipolar disorders, among others. We started to experience a huge spike in 2020, following the coronavirus-induced lockdown, which resulted in many people suffering from ailments that include depression and anxiety,” revealed Supt Khanyezi.
While in the psychiatric unit, the mental patients are given medicine until they recover and are eligible for release.
However, due to the ever-growing population in the unit, ZPCS is often hit by medication shortages.
As a result, this sometimes disrupts the overall healing process of patients.
Serenity Mind Centre specialist psychiatrist Dr Anesu Chinoperekwei, who evaluates offenders, said their database shows a massive spike in mentally ill patients in the past few years.
However, Dr Chinoperekwei reckons most mentally challenged people are never taken to hospital and do not take any medication.
“Looking at the frequency and nature of cases that reach the courts, at least four patients now require mental evaluation per day compared to an average of seven people per week before the lockdown,” she said.
“The figure we have in our database is less than the actual number of people who are mentally ill. Largely, this is because most of the mentally ill people barely get medical attention if they are not violent or when they are not involved in crime.”
In terms of Section 29 of the Mental Health Act (1996), when a person is suspected of having committed a crime when they were not mentally stable, the court is required to give a special verdict.
A suspect’s mental health condition or disorder is determined by the magistrate during a court session.
Ndlovu and Nyoni Law Chambers lawyer Sibusisiwe Ndebele said it is the magistrate who has the powers to recommend that a suspect should undergo mental evaluation.
“In any case, the court should ascertain whether or not the person is mentally stable for trial. If they are found or suspected of having been ill at any time during the commission of the crime, then they are not treated in the same manner as those who are sane; the situation automatically becomes different,” she said.
However, even if the accused committed an offence while they were mentally unstable, police have powers to arrest them provided they have a reception order.
The reception order is issued by the magistrate or judge, directing that an accused be incarcerated at a psychiatric institution.
However, the accused should be evaluated by two medical practitioners, one of whom must be a Government medical practitioner.
“After evaluation, the two practitioners should grant the magistrate a certificate showing that the person is mentally unstable and is a danger to himself or others,” added Ndebele.
While the recovery processes vary from individual to individual, mental patients can only be discharged or declared free to rejoin their families after another evaluation and certification that they have fully recovered.
According to legal experts, there is no clearly set calendar dates for evaluation of mental patients.
“They are reviewed by a board at any desired time and then they (board) make certain recommendations to the tribunal.
“The tribunal should then sit, consider and agree if indeed the patient is fit for release or not; if they are declared fit, then their families are contacted to come and collect them,” said Ndebele.
Most families find it hard to readmit a person who has been to prison, especially in the psychiatric unit, when they are discharged.
It is even worse if the case in question was ghastly — talk of murder and rape.
“I think it is important to look at this with an open mind. We are talking of a person who has committed a serious crime, gets convicted, spends time with other hard core criminals and finally gets released. Yes, he or she will be a relative but there is no way I can trust such a person with my family,” argued Daniel Mutero.
Legally, families cannot be forced to reintegrate a member coming from a correctional facility, particularly if the person has reached the age of majority.
As a result, some patients have been forced to stay at the penal facility for periods that stretch to as long as eight years after discharge.
To control the swelling numbers, ZPCS sometimes has to transfer the mental patients to Bulawayo’s Ingutsheni Central Hospital.
Where the family is welcoming, the inmate is handed over after all due processes
ZPCS has set in motion plans to establish more rehabilitation centres for psychiatric patients.
The “homes” will house discharged mental patients who would have been disowned by their families after discharge.
At these facilities, they will be equipped with various empowerment skills.
Prison Ministries pastor Partson Machengete notes that with the programme “Another Chance”, ZPCS opened a channel for the reintegration of mental patients back into their communities.
Under the programme, ZPCS is constantly in touch with offenders’ families, while the inmate goes through rehabilitation.
“We used to have more cases of families refusing to accept these patients back after discharge. However, through ‘Another Chance’, we get to engage the families from the onset; they become part of the offender’s recovery process.
“This makes it easy for them to welcome the offender after discharge. Society is slowly beginning to embrace former jailbirds,” he said. *SundayMail*