EDITORIAL COMMENT: New State Parole Board will need maximum support
The return to the prison system of a small group of those prisoners who benefited from the latest Presidential clemency, sometimes within a few days of walking free, shows up the difficulty of having all prisoners allowed to benefit from such orders, regardless of their background and behaviour.
Most prisoners released on a clemency order simply count their lucky stars, go free and make serious efforts to tread the straight and narrow for the rest of their lives, so they do not see the inside of a cell again.
This makes this policy worthwhile to refine but in an individualised way, so that each prisoner who could gain early release can be properly assessed and every decision for early release be based on the individual prisoner.
But it was a fact that some appear not to have learned their lesson and are now on remand for new crimes, or for crimes that they have yet to face trial for. Their reductions in sentence are, unfortunately, permanent so when they are convicted of new crimes they start the whole process once again with new sentences, and cannot be returned to prison to finish off their old sentence.
There was also criticism in some circles over some of those who benefited, with some thinking that the sentence reduction in a few cases was excessive, largely because of the way the calculation was applied to groups of prisoners who only just qualified, having served the absolute minimum proportion of their sentence to qualify.
The new Prisons and Correctional Services Act, now passed by both Houses of Parliament and on its way to the President for final approval and gazetting as law, cleans up a lot of our law on prisons and prisoners, modernising the system, ensuring that prisoners are always well treated with the basic punishment being their confinement.
In addition, this makes the differentiation stronger between prisoners in jail under a sentence imposed by a court after conviction and prisoners being held in custody on remand awaiting trial, and who remain legally innocent until proven guilty.
But one major change is the establishment of a State Parole Board, which as it becomes operational should be able to reinforce the benefits of a system of clemency where appropriate but give greater protection to society and encourage prisoners to behave in exemplary ways and show that they have been learning their lesson and have reformed.
The system can also help ease a released prisoner back into society, a step at a time.
We have been using a parole system for some prisoners on an extended term of imprisonment.
This is a small group of incorrigibles, criminals, who are no strangers to the courts and have not learned their lessons in earlier prison spells.
Parole used to be almost essential in colonial times, since they were sent to prison for an indeterminate period and someone had to eventually make a decision when it was harmless to release them.
These days they go for a range of years, say five to eight, but again someone has to decide if they can come out near the earlier limit or must stay for the longest possible period.
But the overwhelming majority of prisoners are inside for a fixed number of months or years, set by a court, and except for a general system of having a third of their sentence automatically remitted if they behave properly and follow the rules know precisely their date of release.
This has been in recent decades modified by periodic clemency orders, issued by the President with the consent of Cabinet, and largely driven by recommendations from within the prison system to avoid gross overcrowding.
This is the process that will be systemised and now applied to individual prisoners, with more safeguards and more supervision of those who do manage to obtain early release.
Public safety, and the need to retain with the courts the setting of appropriate sentences, means that a jailed prisoner will have to have served at least two thirds of their sentence before they can be considered by the State Parole Board.
Recommendations on parole or probation, plus on the conditions that the released prisoner will have to follow, then go to the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, and from there to the President, who makes the final decision, and can add to the conditions of release or amend them.
The critical point, and where it is most unlike a clemency order, is that there are conditions for each prisoner, and the conditions are tailored for that prisoner. There is no one size fitting all.
The parole section in the new law also allow for day parole, as part of the process of helping a prisoner, especially a longer-term prisoner, reintegrate into society. Under this provision a prisoner can be let out for days, or even weekends, and then return to prison while they continue to serve their sentence. But when the gates finally open permanently they have hopefully managed to restore contact with their family and community and be able to cope with freedom.
A lot of the detailed assessment and work of the parole board will be done by prisons staff. In the days when prisons existed just to keep the guilty behind bars for the court-set period, this would have been difficult. In recent years, reflected in the change of name some years ago to Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services, the service has built up a pool of skills and dramatically expanded its role to rehabilitating prisoners, training them to become self-supporting on release and generally doing what can be done to prevent future repeat visits to the cells.
Further professional training will probably be required, and in any case the service will need to build up experience on what sort of behaviour is being looked for in a reforming prisoner, with the lessons learned from each mistake. The required conditions for each early release will also need to be continually monitored to ensure they are effective.
The clauses dealing with parole and probation in the law dwell at some length on the need to avoid risk to communities and society, which means that released prisoners will not be rushing out to re-offend regardless of their crime, and for almost perfect behaviour while in jail, which would mean taking not just prison rules seriously but also the prisoner applying themselves to the rehabilitation and reform work.
That application should also minimise the risk to society.
The new State Parole Board will be a major new initiative for Zimbabwe, but already from what we have learned from the successes, and regrettably the failures, of clemency orders we have a good starting point where we can treat every prisoner as an individual.
While maintaining the court sentences can differentiate between prisoners who take their time behind bars seriously, are prepared to learn their lesson and are prepared to co-operate in not reoffending and in becoming law-abiding members of society.
It needs the full backing of a lot of people, including the sort of professionals who may well need to assist the Prisons and Correctional Services design and administer the training officers will increasingly need, and provide the back-up that a developing and ever-more professional service requires to make the parole system work well.