By Wanangwa Chafulumira & Serah Makondetsa:
A source who tipped Malawi News on anonymity hinted that Chichiri Prison, for example, accommodates 200 inmates in a cell recommended for 80 people.
Malawi Prison Service spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba confirmed the development saying the ministry responsible is aware of the matter.
“It is an open fact that there is congestion in our prisons. Authorities at the ministry and all stakeholders are aware of all those problems. During our Christmas ball, our chief commissioner alluded to the fact that the major challenge we have now is congestion.
“Of course, last year, we commissioned four cell blocks at Maula Prison and those cells have a holding capacity of 300 and First Capital Bank is also planning to build cells. We are aware that it cannot happen overnight,” he said.
When we visited Chichiri Prison Wednesday, we established that the number of inmates at the facility was 1,933 against a recommended capacity of 720 inmates.
One of the inmates we had a chat with confirmed that the number of prisoners has almost tripled and some people sleep in a seated position.
“We have what we call big cells and single cells. In the big cells, there are supposed to be 80 people but I can confirm to you that now they accommodate almost 210 people each. What happens is some who have been here long enough sleep on a foot-length space along the walls of the room and the rest sleep in seated positions from 3pm to 7am in the morning.
“In the event that someone wants to use the toilet, they have to alert one who is in charge of that cell. Mind you, the arrangement is not pleasant; it is almost as if packing of bales of tobacco. If one person has a cough, one thing for sure is almost anyone in the room will catch it,” said the inmate.
A 2018 Malawi Inspectorate of Prisons Report to Parliament that Malawi News has seen indicates that, at the time of inspection, Mzuzu Prison had 836 inmates against a recommended capacity of 90 inmates representing 929 percent.
Lilongwe (Maula) Prison had 3,026 inmates against 480 representing 630 percent, Blantyre (Chichiri) Prison had 1,866 inmates against 570 representing 327 percent while Zomba Central Prison had 2166 against a capacity of 756 representing 287 percent.
The report said, under international human rights law, conditions of overcrowding in prisons can amount to a violation of the prohibition against torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
“Overall, the prison system is at 260 percent of its official capacity, with 14,778 prisoners occupying spaces built for only 5,680 persons. On the relevant dates of inspection, only three prisons were within their official population capacity: Makande at 56 percent occupancy, Luwani at 98 percent occupancy and Mikuyu II at 99 percent occupancy.
“All the remaining 26 prisons were above their official capacity, ranging from Karonga at the low end of 101 percent of its capacity to Mzuzu Prison at the highest at 929 percent capacity. The five prisons with the highest occupancy rates are Lilongwe at 630 percent of its capacity, Ntchisi at 467 percent, Nkhotakota at 456 percent, Ntcheu at 404 percent, Kachere at 376 percent,” reads the report.
Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance Executive Director Victor Mhango condemned the development saying such a situation is a result of, among others, bail and long period of remand.
“There is lack of coordination amongst the players in the criminal justice system. You know sometimes the Malawi Police Service arrest people who are not supposed to go to prison but they take them to court and the court remands them to prison.
“So you can see the flow starts from the police. We cannot blame the prisons because they are on the receiving end. Our prisons were built some time back when the population was low and now the population has grown, this is why the prisons have pressure to accommodate prisoners,” he said.
“It is a pathetic situation to say the least, that is a crisis, we have reached the crisis level that as a country we have such a situation. You know being a prisoner does not make you less a human being. All prisoners are entitled to all fundamental rights we are all entitled.
“Our justice system must be looked at, you will see that our laws provide alternative sentencing like community service and small fines, most of the inmates in prisons are people who committed minor offences and are flooding our prisons and these are the people that could have been given alternative sentences. The prisons are also being flooded by people on pre-trial,” he said.
Homeland Security Miniister Nicholas Dausi said government is trying to decongest the prisons.
“We are trying to decongest the prisons; we are also trying to solicit funds for the construction of new cells. A contingency measure that President [Peter Mutharika] has put in place is the pardoning of certain people who are serving sentences for petty issues, the sick and the elderly,” he said.
The Inspectorate of Prisons, which was established by Section 169 of the Malawi Constitution, began its operations in July 1995.
It is a member of the Forum for Constitutional Bodies and was established with the prime objective of monitoring prions’ conditions, administration and the entire functioning in the country.
In essence, the Inspectorate of Prison is concerned with the general welfare as well as the protection of prisoners.