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Zimbabwe's jails: full of human kindness?

BBC presenter Petroc Trelawney says he was well-treated in Bulawayo jail.
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Prisoners incarcerated at Chikurumbi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Stringer//AFP/Getty Images)

After BBC music presenter Petroc Trelawny spent six days in custody in Zimbabwe on spurious charges, many were surprised that he said he was well treated in the Bulawayo jail and that was met with "nothing but kindness."

I'm not surprised. I, too, have spent time in jail in Zimbabwe and came away with a similar feeling.

Trelawny presents classical music shows on the BBC and went to Zimbabwe as a celebrity emcee for an arts festival in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city. He was not accepting payment for the engagement. He was arrested on charges of working as a journalist without accreditation.

Trelawney was taken to the Bulawayo jail where he shared a 14 foot by 9 foot cell with 16 people. Sometimes the number rose to 20.

"As soon as I went in, I realized it was going to be very uncomfortable but there was nothing to be frightened of," said Trelawney to the BBC. His fellow inmates were "warm and welcoming," he said. They showed him how to sleep in such a tight space — when one person moved, everyone else had to follow. Trelawney later tripped over one of the inmates and fell and fractured his arm. He was taken to a Bulawayo hospital where he said he was treated well by "amazing nurses" despite the lack of medicine.

All charges against him were dropped.

"I'm left with an extraordinary realization of the goodness of humanity," said Trelawney after he arrived back in London over the weekend.

Trelawney's remarks are big-hearted and magnanimous, considering that the charge against him was ridiculous and that the police acted in a heavy-handed way.

I appreciate Trelawney's remarks. When I was jailed in Zimbabwe, for two days in May 2002, I, too, came away with an extraordinary appreciation for the camaraderie and support extended to me by my fellow prisoners. We were all in a cramped cell, like Trelawney's, and we got along very well.

I was lucky because there were two Zimbabwean journalists in the cell with me. Right away they offered to share a blanket. It stank of urine and had bedbugs, but the basement cell was so cold that within a couple of hours I was happy to snuggle under it with my new friends.

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We found a copy of the day's newspaper and we pored over it. We discovered that it would soon be World Press Freedom Day and we chuckled about how we would be in the headlines as "journalists in jail." One of the jail guards came and told us that we were not supposed to read the newspaper, it was only to be used as toilet paper. This made us laugh even more.

The other prisoners, who were in for a variety of charges ranging from theft and vagrancy to assault and murder, were all pleasant and helpful. 

I did not find my jailers as nice. They made me take off my shirt, saying that I could only have one layer of upper clothing. I chose to keep my sweater. The police who interogated me were threatening and intimidating and a couple of them have been named as torturers in testimonies by opposition supporters and government critics who were abused in the same jail, Harare Central, where I was held.

And what tip do I have for anyone who goes to jail in Zimbabwe? Keep a plastic bag in your pocket. Why? Because all prisoners must be barefoot and you can put the plastic bag over your feet to keep them warm in the cells. Now you know.

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