MASERU — Somewhere in Ha-Thamae, 30-year-old Tšepo (not his real name) is busy with some friends unloading concrete bricks from a truck.
They engage in friendly banter, as if to lighten the load of work.
Tšepo appears visibly excited, glad that he is free at last.
A few minutes after our arrival we explain the purpose of our visit.
We tell him that we want to talk to him about his experiences in Maseru central prison.
That jolted him into some sort of defensiveness.
After some lengthy negotiations he agrees to speak to the Lesotho Times but only on condition that we do not use his real name.
Tšepo was among the 303 lucky prisoners who were released from jail by the Lesotho Correctional Service two weeks ago following a general amnesty.
The prisons authority said in a statement to the media that it was releasing the prisoners as a reward for good behavior and to slash the huge prison population in Lesotho’s jails.
“Pursuant to Sections 24 A (1) of Prisons Amendment Act of 1969 and Section 17 of Prisons Amendment Act of 1974, the Lesotho Correctional Service has released a total number of three hundred and three (303) inmates on the 16th September 2011. This was done as a means of encouraging good behaviour among prisoners and reducing prison overcrowding,” the statement said.
Tšepo says he is lucky to be out after serving three of his five-year jail term. He refused to disclose the reason why he was jailed.
In a candid interview with the Lesotho Times, Tšepo opened the lid on the dire conditions in Lesotho’s jails.
“I am just glad that it is over. I feel so lucky that my days in prison were cut short. I do not want to go back there,” he says.
He says life had slowly become tough than when he first walked through the prison gates in September 2009.
The 24 months he spent in jail were hell, he says.
Food was now scarce, with the prison space shrinking every week as more inmates were thrown into jail, he says.
He says the prison officials informed them a few months ago to expect “belt-tightening” due to a serious shortage of food because the government “had run out of money” to feed prisoners.
He says they were also warned not to speak about these food shortages.
As we conduct the interview Tšepo again seeks our assurance that we will protect his identity.
We oblige and assure him that we will not expose his identity.
“I don’t want to mess things up for myself. I don’t want to set my foot back there again. It is important that you do not mention my name,” he says.
“We were warned in a meeting a few months ago that there would be food shortages. Later, the number of meals was cut from three to two per day.
“Eventually there was no breakfast. We only had bread and tea at around mid-day and papa and beans or peas at around 3pm.”
He says some inmates were lucky to get food from their relatives in Maseru.
“People are hungry in there. They are even fighting for food when someone wants to share,” he says.
“You should feel pity for those who do not have relatives in Maseru or those who have been abandoned by their relatives.”
Tšepo says those who are on medication were not spared.
“There are people who are sick and fragile. Most do not recover as quickly as they would if they had enough food.
“Some are on ARVs (antiretroviral drugs that fight Aids). They need a balanced diet to boost their immune system. But they suffer,” he says.
“I heard some say the ARVs make people hungry. There is no special treatment there.”
He says apart from the food shortages, prisoners were also grappling with the problem of serious overcrowding.
He says over-crowding was virtually out of control.
“There are too many prisoners in one small cell. When one catches flu it quickly spreads to the rest of the inmates,” he says.
Uniforms and bedding were also in short supply.
“We were given torn uniforms. Blankets and bedding were not enough.
“We were no longer being supplied with blades for shaving yet it is a must that we keep shaven heads and beards,” he says.
He says the shortage of shaving blades meant that prisoners had to make do with the few available, exchanging used blades, putting their health in danger.
“It is not healthy because we know how infections are passed through using one blade,” he says.
Tšepo’s damning assessment of the prison conditions are however nothing new.
A 2003 report compiled by the then Ombudsman, Sekara Mafisa, says Lesotho’s prisons were in bad shape.
It also says most of the five prisons that were inspected were overcrowded and that some of them were not fit for human habitation.
“The level of overcrowding is a matter of great concern to us. The size of the prison buildings has become too small,” the report says.
“While the construction of a modern prison is being considered the floor needs topping to fill the cracks which are likely to be a hide-out for disease carriers. It also requires tiling so it may be suitable for human beings to sleep on,” the report says in one of its assessments.
“Prisoners are entitled to a good, balanced diet. The prison administration should ensure that body-building foodstuffs [such] as meat and milk are supplied on a regular basis, at least once a week,” the report says.
The LCS information officer, Matime Phamotse, confirmed that there was serious overcrowding in prisons.
He added that this was beginning to affect other services.
“Overcrowding results in other problems. If we had budgeted food for a certain number of people and the number grows it means the budget will no longer afford to feed the extras,” Phamotse said.
He said other services like counseling, training, rehabilitation and mentorship suffered as a result.