ZIMBABWE – This is the tale of Elizabeth Banda-Karinda who has seen it all as a prison officer, rising through ranks to the position of Assistant Commissioner of Prisons and Correctional Service.
The horrendous responsibility of being an education officer expected to rehabilitate notorious criminals like Masendeke, Chidhumo, Chauke among other hard core criminals made her afraid.
And it was the fear that gave her courage to go on.
“I joined the Zimbabwe Prison Services in 1999 and the picture that I had of the prison was not what I got. My very first assignment was at Chikurubi Maximum Prison where I worked with the late Chidhumo and Masendeke.
“This was really scary, and then I was the first female education officer to be posted in the male prison. I had to move around with an escort and I was so scared,” she chronicles.
The 47-year-old Ass Commissioner says her interaction with some of those hard core criminals gave her a totally different picture about inmates.
“But as you get to know these offenders, you understand them. As a prison officer, you are indirectly incarcerated because you spend most of your time with inmates.
“I had to work with inmates as an education officer and as I kept on interacting with them as they shared their stories, my perception changed. I began to appreciate that the role of the prison was to rehabilitate those that society had shunned.
“Dealing with offenders is a life commitment. Being a prison officer, you get various experiences drawn from the different people who are even rejected by the society,” she adds.
She reminisces her days at Chikurubi Female Prison how things were as they sometimes had to ‘carry the inmates’ burdens’.
“The system was still different back then. Female inmates could not bring their babies to prison unlike now. So they would share with you their concerns, how worried they were about their babies they had left back home.
“Most of the stories were really touching and you could feel for them as a mother. Then we would have inmates who would be pregnant and when it is time for them to deliver, you would realise that she doesn’t have even a single baby clothe.
“Before the well-wishers could even chip in, you would find yourself looking for baby clothes to make sure that they have something to wear,” she says.
Ass Comm Banda-Karinda says she somehow got attached to these inmates: “My experience in the prison has changed me to be more human.”
She started as a senior prison officer when she joined the prison from the Ministry of Education holding a National Diploma majoring in Mathematics and rose through the ranks until December 24 when she was promoted to Assistant Commissioner. Banda-Karinda concedes that it was not a walk in the park as she had to work really hard to fit in the male dominated field.
“It wasn’t easy settling in the male dominated field which has more than 10 100 officers and out of those, only 2 400 are women.
“This is a male dominated field and you need a muscle to fit in. You will also notice that our prisons are male dominated such that out of 19 138 inmates, only 550 are women.
“There is a lot of risk working with inmates who have been shunned by the society. You live each day with some of the notorious criminals as you work on rehabilitating them,” she adds.
She believes hard work, discipline and determination has kept her going for the 16 years she has been the prison service.
“To survive in this field, one needs to be disciplined and principled. The most important aspect is however that of being disciplined. These inmates can come with various and tempting offers and try to lure you to help them escape from prison.
“Some of the offers can be very tempting such that you then need to be disciplined and principled so as to resist the temptations,” she says.
Ass Comm Banda-Karinda says it is the discipline she has learnt in the service that has helped her managed to be an officer, mother, wife, sister and aunt.
“I took a leaf from the mothers and wives who are serving in prisons and can’t be there for their families. This has then taught me to strive to be a good wife to my husband who I thank for being very supportive.
“I also try to be there for my children whenever I can although my job is really demanding,” she says.
The mother of five says she learnt to be a sub-servant and manage to change roles without any challenges.
Ass Comm Banda-Karinda who is currently studying for her Masters in Business Administration although she holds several diplomas, says those who wish to pursue a career in the prison service should be committed to serve others.
“Working in prisons is actually a calling for many and I urge those who want to, to first see if they really do have the passion”.
She believes the time she has spent in the prison’s public relations department has helped groomed her and is ready for her new post.