When a man would rather spend life behind bars than live one more day on the streets of his nation's capital, you know things have gotten bad.

Lovemore Mankiya, 22, broke into two houses in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare this month. He stole two cell phones, a plasma television and a wad of cash -- $1800, to be exact.

He was caught, tried and sentenced to three years in prison -- but apparently, that wasn't enough. Mankiya wrote a note that was read out in court, and it asked for a more serious sentence.

"Life in prison is better than life in the streets," said the note, according to the BBC. "May I have life in prison?"

Unfortunately for Mankiya, the judge declined to accommodate him. He can expect to go free in 2015.

The Alternative

Mankiya's request is especially shocking considering Zimbabwe's deplorable penal system. This issue came to the fore in 1999, when a documentary called "Hell Hole," produced by Godknows Nare, was aired on South African television.

The footage revealed harrowing prison conditions, which were all the more disconcerting since Zimbabwe has a highly corrupt justice system. Though many of the prisoners shown had committed actual crimes, others had been jailed for nothing more than political dissidence.

The video showed emaciated bodies, filthy conditions, and overcrowded cells. Many of the inmates were starving, and death was frequent.

As recently as 2008, the world got another glimpse into the Zimbabwe prison system when Barry Bearak, a New York Times staffer, was arrested for disseminating the news. During his imprisonment, which was only four days long, he became fixated on obtaining basic supplies like blankets.

"Sleep escaped me," he wrote later. "The concrete was too hard, my body too bony. I had never so craved a pad and blanket. The insects were most annoying at night. [...] One time, when able to wander the bleak corridors, I found what once had been a bathroom, with the remnants of sinks and showers. In one corner was a heap of blankets, stiff and moldy and fetid. I was tempted to take one but they were simply too disgusting. I wasn't yet that cold or tired."

So if Mankiya preferred to spend all his years in jail just to avoid living in Harare, the situation on the streets must be absolutely abysmal.

Living for the City

Mankiya is not alone in disparaging life in Harare. The Economist Intelligence Unit, a research firm linked to The Economist, conducted a survey of 140 cities last year to identify the world's best and worst places to live.

Harare came in dead last.

Citing a litany of woes -- a lack of quality housing for all but the very wealthy, an impoverished public education system, terrible infrastructure, water and electricity shortages, et cetera -- the study gave Harare a 38 percent "livability rating." The two million people who live there today were said to have "bleak prospects."

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's elite citizens continue to live in relative luxury. This is nothing new; high-level corruption has been the norm in Harare since the early 1990s, just after President Robert Mugabe officially took the nation's highest office.

His administration has since gained a reputation for ruthless oppression of dissent, coupled with endemic mismanagement.

Zimbabwe has plenty of mineral assets -- diamonds are particularly abundant. The export of precious gems could be used to finance the public sector and necessary infrastructure projects, but reports indicate that these funds are regularly embezzled by top officials.

As a result, Zimbabwe has made little developmental progress since its independence; poverty and hunger are widespread throughout the landlocked country. Basic infrastructure projects like electrical grids, sewage systems and road repairs have been sorely neglected.

"Zimbabwe currently spends about $0.8 billion per year on infrastructure, though $0.7 billion of this is lost to inefficiencies of various kinds. Even if these inefficiencies were fully captured, Zimbabwe would still face an infrastructure funding gap of $0.6 billion per year," according to a report from the World Bank.

People like Mankiya, in other words, have been essentially forgotten by the government that purports to serve them.

Political Posturing

These grave injustices have motivated western countries to impose strong sanctions against Zimbabwe, but there is now some hope that these may be lifted soon. The country is working on the draft of a new constitution -- reformists are hoping the document will curtail the extensive powers of the executive branch.

There are also national elections scheduled for next year. Despite his ill health, Mugabe looks determined to run -- but if the election progresses fairly, he may very well lose his seat to the current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader.

The last national elections, held in 2008, were expected to tilt in Tsvangirai's favor. But Mugabe waged a campaign of violence and intimidation to sway the results. Following the deaths of hundreds of civilians, Tsvangirai dropped out. He was later named prime minister in a shaky power-sharing agreement brokered by a coalition of African nations.

Next year's elections could very well engender a new round of violence -- but there is also a chance that Mugabe, 88, will be stripped of his presidential post for the first time in decades.

Strapped For Cash?

Another sign of hope: Zimbabwe's economy is on the mend after hitting rock bottom just a few years ago.

Inflation is high, though not as bad as it once was. Things were at their worst in 2008, by which point Zimbabwe had stopped printing essentially worthless paper bills and switched to what were referred to as "bearer checks." A $10 million bearer check could barely cover a loaf of bread at a local supermarket.

But after the power-sharing agreement of 2009, the government pursued a process of "dollarization," abandoning local currency and replacing it with foreign currencies like the U.S. dollar and the South African rand. There are some disputes as to where inflation stands now, with the central government downplaying -- or else not even calculating -- key figures. Staples prices are still high, but an inflation rate that was once skyrocketing has since stabilized considerably.

"Basic foodstuffs are generally available on the market at relatively stable prices," according to a 2012 report from USAID. "According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat), the year-on year inflation rate averaged 4.4 percent between September 2011 and January 2012." This is comparable to inflation rates in neighboring countries such as Zambia and South Africa.

But the government still struggles to renew public trust in the banking system. Economic growth is slow, and the lack of funds at Zimbabwean banks doesn't help matters. The local markets are overwhelmingly cash-based, and citizens typically hold most of their money outside of the banking system, according to the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe.

That'll be a tough nut to crack, especially since the government's economic policies are weak due to endemic infighting between Mugabe and the opposition leaders who share the government.

Over the Rainbow

Looking at Zimbabwe over the past few years, it's easy to see why Mankiya feels hopeless about his future -- but he may do well to reconsider.

Things are bad, to be sure. The country's record for human rights, both in and out of prison, remains terrible. Basic living supplies are still expensive. The economy is shaky, and Mugabe is as corrupt as ever.

But things are getting better, not worse.

With inflation at relatively normal levels, a new constitution on the way and national elections just around the corner, Western nations are strongly considering a removal of long-imposed sanctions. Opposition leaders are growing bolder in the meantime, with the democratically minded Tsvangirai making several trips abroad to rally international support for his own initiatives.

Things could fall apart at any moment, but there's also a fair chance they won't.

So perhaps Mankiya has some cause to be hopeful about what Zimbabwe will look like when he emerges from prison in 2015 and steps back onto the streets of Harare.