Lloyd Gumbo Mr Speaker Sir —
This week’s edition of The Sunday Mail had an interesting but depressing piece on jailed rapist Martin Gumbura and the conditions of prisoners who cannot enjoy their conjugal rights, the moment they become guests of the State.
The article quotes, one of Gumbura’s 11 wives Queen Bunga who poured her heart out about the effects of having a jailed spouse.
“We are not enjoying our conjugal rights, there is no such thing in Zimbabwe,” she said.
“This is one thing that women’s organisations might have to lobby for so that it can be debated in Parliament. Maybe if there was some organisation representing the interests of prisoners’ wives, we would do that on our own.
“We cannot have a situation where a man is imprisoned and it marks the end of his conjugal rights with his wives.
“This is not something that is even remotely understood by many people. When you talk about this, most people will simply tell you to move on and find another man. That is not what we want because we are waiting for our husband and therefore we need to be given that option to enjoy our conjugal rights while he is in jail.”
The story triggered fresh debate on whether to allow or not to allow prisoners to enjoy their conjugal rights while inside the grim walls of prisons.
Mr Speaker Sir, while some quarters may see these remarks as nothing more than just comic rhetoric, there is serious need to collectively consider the issue of conjugal visits for spouses of jailed law offenders.
Firstly, what people should appreciate is that when one is jailed, it is meant to be a punishment for that particular offender not their family.
Spouses cannot be collaterally punished for the ‘sins’ of their husbands or wives by denying them their conjugal rights during the time, the spouses are in jail.
Granted, prison is considered punishment where the offender must pay the price of not having the freedom that they had before committing a crime, as such denial or restriction of certain privileges and freedoms are the perks that comes with it.
But in all fairness conjugal rights for married couples are not one way, where one assumes that by allowing them conjugal visit, it is the inmates who benefit more than their law-abiding spouses.
Why should law-abiding spouses be denied their conjugal rights just because their husbands or wives have been jailed?
Mr Speaker Sir, does imprisonment mean both husband and wife must bid farewell to fundamental rights such as conjugal rights when either of them is jailed?
There are some people who argue that, the law-abiding spouse must find conjugal alternatives during the time their husband or wife is in jail but how about those who value the sanctity of their marriage, should they pay for being upright?
Are we not advocating the spread of HIV/Aids, when the remaining spouse is tempted to engage multiple sex partners?
Secondly, it is reported even by Parliamentary committees that homosexuality was rampant in prisons.
Mr Speaker Sir, isn’t denial of conjugal visits, the major driver of homosexual tendencies by prisoners?
And do those tendencies end when they complete their jail term or they export them to the outside world?
It is important that if as a country our position is that we abhor homosexuality, our institutions should not create conditions that promote the same.
In short, we should not speak with forked tongues when it comes to these issues.
Thirdly, several studies that have been carried out indicate that allowing conjugal visits strengthens family ties, making it possible for inmates to successfully re-enter society upon release and unlikely to commit more crimes, thus rehabilitated, which is the major purpose of imprisonment in the first place.
They have also found out that inmates allowed conjugal visits are less likely to be violent, which is a good thing. Besides, imprisoned spouses particularly men are still considered for decision-making at home even though they are behind bars, so they cannot be expected to make decisions at home yet are denied the fundamental tie that binds them together.
The other consideration is that psychologists aver that allowing conjugal visits promote positive behaviour among inmates in which those who are well-behaved are rewarded with conjugal visits. This will act as a motivation for married prisoners to behave so that they are not disqualified from enjoying conjugal visits. Experience with open prisons such as Connemara in Gweru is clear testimony of how allowing conjugal visits could act as motivation for inmates to behave. For instance, those at Connemara are allowed to take leave and spend some time with their families with indications that the majority if not all of them return to prison when their “leave” is over. So if parole can be a motivation for good behaviour, how about conjugal visits?
Countries such as Spain, Australia (Queensland), Canada, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Denmark, and Germany as well some states in the United States have embraced conjugal visits where inmates spend several hours or days with their spouses in a private setting where they can engage in sex, if they so wish.
Mr Speaker Sir, it is accepted that prison is considered a punishment for the offender by taking away their freedom in a confined place so that they can reflect on their behaviour and hopefully rehabilitate themselves.
But it is equally important to understand that families are probably the best people in the rehabilitation and re-integration process, as such allowing them conjugal visits will enhance that process.
Where there is exclusion, the default tendency is to turn rogue, so by denying inmates conjugal visits, this may result in them committing crimes after serving prison-terms.
While the Prisons and Correctional Services Bill is still under consideration, it is important that conjugal visits are seriously considered where the terms and conditions for such are clearly spelt out.
In this case, it can be clearly defined, which categories deserve conjugal visits and whether rapists or those convicted of aggravated murder should also be allowed to enjoy these conjugal visits.
Already the Bill has been lauded for being forward-looking because of its emphasis on prisons’ rehabilitative role than retributive.
Mr Speaker Sir, the inclusion of Correctional Services on prisons in the Constitution was not just to give it a long name but the intention to rehabilitate law offenders.
It is therefore, important that emphasis is put on rehabilitating inmates than punishing them, which is the current case where they are denied conjugal visits.
Rehabilitation is way more than inmates composing gospel songs, being preached to and baptised, but allowing them conjugal visits could go a long way in rehabilitating offenders.