The “forgotten constituency”: Making a case for digital rights for prisoners in Zimbabwe during and beyond COVID-19

The evolution of digital communications technology has changed our societies, many of our institutions and the way we live in profound ways. Internet access is now viewed as a basic requirement for many in society. Information on health, education, science, sports, etc. is now easily accessible on the internet. In some developed countries, public administration and bureaucratic communication have gone paperless. This evolution has also ushered in a growing discourse on digital (human) rights.

These digital and technological advancements bring with them issues and dilemmas when engaging with certain constituencies in society, however. One such constituency is the prison constituency. In Zimbabwe, just like in many other parts of the world, prison is highly resented by society. Even the government and the ministry in charge of prisons do not seem comfortable to discuss the rights of prisoners, let alone digital rights. This paper tackles this largely unexplored (at least in the Zimbabwean context) subject on digital rights for prisoners.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the proclamation of a decision by the government of Zimbabwe to limit visits to public spaces like hospitals, banks, colleges and prisons. For prisoners, it means very limited interaction, if any, with the rest of the world. Against this backdrop, this paper engages with the question of digital rights for prisoners and how these can play a part in keeping the prisoners connected to the rest of the world, while also arming them with necessary social, technological and economic skills for post-prison life.

The reflections in the paper are based on the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms,1 with particular attention was given to Principles 1 (Openness), 2 (Internet Access and Affordability),3 (Freedom of Expression), 4 (Right to Information), and 7 (Right to Development and Access to Knowledge).

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David Makwerere