Prisoners are often a condemned and forgotten species. Once convicted, few people, even relations take time to visit or offer them hope. One woman has demonstrated a different passion for prisoners all over the country with her heart of gold. She is Sister Anna Tommasi, 69 of the Catholic Church. She speaks with Caroline Somanje about her unfamiliar 10-year journey.
Describe your work?
Well, it is not easy to answer in short because the work I do in the 10 prisons covers a variety of fields. I visit Chichiri Prison twice a week, then I have a monthly visit to Zomba Central Prison, once in Mikuyu, Mulanje, Thyolo, Makande, Mwanza, Luwani and two juvenile prisons of Bvumbwe and Mikuyu.
What kind of assistance do you render?
I have a feeding programme for about 900 HIV and AIDS prisoners who are already on treatment. We give sugar, eggs, dry fish and vegetables.
At Chichiri Prison, we have a sick bay which I built with funding from the Italian Catholic Church. We take care of very weak and sick inmates. Special food is cooked for them daily. I help with their personal needs, including special clinical exams or drugs which are not available at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. The sick bay has impacted the lives of sick prisoners who would have no special care because the Malawi Prison Service budget does not include special food and bedding for the sick.
How many female prisoners do you reach out to?
We have a very small number compared to the male prisoners. At Chichiri Prison, there are only 27 women and no children; in Zomba they were just above 30 two weeks ago with eight children. In Mulanje and Chikhwawa, you may have two, three or four women.
How else do you help?
Besides the sick, I help prison schools. They depend on occasional donors so last year I received a three-year grant from Germany to provide school materials. Every term we give a consignment of copybooks, ball pens, chalk, rims of paper, hard cover etc. We also have an incentive for teachers, who are inmates but offer voluntary services to the cause of education. We give them bathing soap, washing soap, body lotion and some special presents at Christmas.
I have a project at Bvumbwe Young Offenders Rehabilitation Centre for teachers coming from outside. This year we have reached Form Four. Besides school materials, I pay salaries for seven teachers. At present we have 13 ex-young offenders from Bvumbwe Prison who are studying in private secondary schools. Two of them have finished Form 4. The Ministry of Education recognises the schools within the prisons, but there is still discrimination because even if they get very good results in their Standard eight examination, young prisoners will not be given a place in government secondary schools.
What other outreach programmes do you have?
We have also a carpentry school in Bvumbwe for the boys who like manual work so that when they go out they may find employment.
Sport is another field in which I am involved by providing footballs, jerseys, football boots and sponsoring some tournaments to get the young inmates busy in positive activities. Sometimes they take part in district tournaments and I pay for their transport to the different places.
What are the common problems prisoners face?
The main problem is food. They get nsima and boiled nandolo once a day for nearly an entire year. They lack soap for washing and bathing. Others are overcrowding in cells, delays in the justice system and idleness for most prisoners.
Tell me the specific programmes for women.
I have a teacher who goes to Chichiri Prison twice a week to help with their school programme and other activities. Some women have learned embroidery and I give them some work and liturgical items which we use in our catholic worship. We do some special cooking with them and now we have received the gift of a sewing machine so in the New Year, we are going to train them in tailoring.
What are some of their major convictions?
The offences vary from stealing, unlawful wounding, cheating and, sad to say, also killing. The least offence was theft of a pair of shoes in a supermarket in Ngabu. An elderly woman stole the shoes for her orphaned niece who is in secondary school. She asked for a fine but the magistrate refused and she is serving a six month sentence at Chichiri. The government is failing to feed the prisoners so people with such offences could be given community service, especially if they are women who have to care for their children or grandchildren.
When did you start helping prisoners?
I started visiting Chichiri Prison in October 2003 so I have been helping prisoners for 10 years. For the first year, I only went to the female section because I thought there was nothing I could do for male prisoners. Now I work more with male prisoners because they are the ones who need more help. The women are better off because they are few and it is easier to help them.
How would you describe Malawi justice system?
It is well organised but when it comes to implementation, I must say it is too slow and sometimes corrupt. Some prisoners wait for three or more years to get judgement. Investigation is very poor, so innocent people may end up being imprisoned. The other big problem is that there is no legal representation in the lower court so usually the scale weighs more on the presumed offender. Legal Aid Department should be given more funding and personnel to come to the rescue of very poor prisoners who have no money to pay a private lawyer.
Who is Sister Anna?
I am a Franciscan Catholic Missionary who was called by God when I was a teenager to follow Him and spend my whole life to witness his love.
I am Italian by birth, but I feel I also belong to Malawi after 11 years living in this country. I did not come to Malawi out of my own will. I was asked by the leaders of our missionary community in Rome to come and work here and I accepted. Of course when I came, I did not dream of getting involved in prison work. But God is surprising. When I retired, I started a new and challenging life here in Malawi. Although I turn 70 in two months’ time, I don’t feel the weight of time. God keeps me young.
How have you improved the lives of prisoners?
My presence in prisons is a sign of hope for inmates, a link with the outside world and someone they may turn to in their special needs. The say: “tilibe pogwira”. The lives of sick prisoners have improved and with the care we have been providing during several years, we have saved a lot of lives. We have seen miracles happening!
What is your view on children locked up with their mothers?
Children should not be in prison and I think magistrates should consider in a special way expectant mothers so that no child should be born in prison. I will never forget the case of Samuel. His mother was convicted in her first month of pregnancy because of stealing from a nearby family the equivalent of K4 250 worth of maize but there was no witness to prove it. She spent all the money she had for an appeal to the high court and the lawyer we got was quite sure the appeal would be successful. The judge had no mercy to see her in her 7th month of pregnancy and simply told her to go back to Chichiri and wait for the judgment. Meanwhile, Samuel was born and four months later the mother was called to the High Court to hear the judgment. The sentence was confirmed and little Samuel came back to Chichiri. We were all very upset, starting with the prison personnel.
Any special moments you would like to share?
One of the initiatives I was allowed to carry out in the female sections of Chichiri and Zomba was the celebration of Mother’s Day. Children below 12 were allowed to spend the day with their mothers in the prison. I paid for their transport to the prison and back home. We prepared a good meal for mothers and children. It was so moving to see them chatting, dancing and eating together. A very special day indeed!
Any final words?
I have been working in the Malawi prisons all these years and everywhere I have been granted a lot of freedom. I am allowed to visit also prisoners on death row and for them it is the only visit they get.
I am sure I could not have this kind of freedom in other countries. I am very grateful to the prison authorities for this openness. I only hope that some of the work I am doing will continue when I am gone, either back to Italy or to heaven.