President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has granted amnesty to all female prisoners regardless of offences, except those on death row or serving life sentences.
Those who remained behind are inmates still on remand and a few foreigners, who will be released to their respective governments.
In an amnesty published in Government Gazette No 36, general notice 85/2016, Mugabe pardoned all the convicted female prisoners, without stating a reason for the move, and the release of prisoners started on Wednesday.
Zimbabwean prisons have continued to struggle to feed inmates due to lack of funding from the government. Zimbabwe’s prisons hold 20,000 inmates, more than their capacity of 17,000, causing congestion and shortages of everything from food to uniforms.
In March 2015, five prisoners died after being shot by police in a protest over food shortages, which turned violent as some of them attempted to break out of jail.
Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Services spokeswoman Priscilla Mthembo said on Thursday there were 580 female inmates across the country’s 46 prisons, and those eligible would be set free.
At the country’s top security jail in Harare, two female prisoners serving life sentences remained after the amnesty, while vetting was ongoing at other prisons.
According to Mthembo, in all, more than 2,000 prisoners would benefit from Mugabe’s pardon. These included all juveniles, irrespective of their crimes, as well as some men not serving time for serious crimes like murder, armed robbery, treason, rape or carjacking.
Male prisoners were however not left out, Mugabe pardoned all those who are under the age of 18 regardless of offences committed, and those over the age of 60, who have served two-thirds of their prison terms and all inmates in open prison.
Terminally-ill prisoners, who were unlikely to survive their prison terms, were fully pardoned regardless of offences. Male inmates convicted of murder, rape, armed robbery and treason were not part of those pardoned.
Mthembo said the amnesty had the effect of decongesting the 46 prisons around the country, which were currently overpopulated by nearly 16%.
Currently, the correctional facilities have a population of 19 900 inmates, although their total holding capacity is just 17 000.