Starved to maddening death


The slow death of Prisoner 1507/3231 exposes how prisons are starving inmates, JAMES CHAVULA writes.


On April 15 2015, Abyuti Phiri, 25, was locked up in the congested confinements of Maula Prison in Lilongwe to await trial for housebreaking and theft.

Then, there was no doubt about the fitness of the newcomer Mchinji Magistrate’s Court sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment on June 25 that year.

Born July 13 1990, he was 1.72-metres tall and weighed 66 kilogrammes. This put his body mass index, a height-weight ratio, within the range of “a healthy adult man”, a medical record reads.

But Abyuti did not complete the jail term which was more than double the five years the late Angela Ketengeza, a former principal secretary involved in a K105.9 million corruption scandal at Capital Hill, got in the High Court.

He did not walk free.

Authorities denied the sickly and demented man pardon and medical parole although Dr Simon Mendelsohn, from Medical sans Frontieres, found him safer released or referred to Zomba Mental Hospital.


Left to rot

The doctor reports that the HIV-negative inmate was severely malnourished, mentally ill and soiled his own faeces when he examined him on February 27 2015.

Abyuti died on March 13 2017 at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) in Lilongwe.

This ended a protracted battle with pellagra and malnutrition diagnosed in May 2016.

According to World Health Organisation, pellagra is a chronic malnutrition that leads to three Ds-dermatitis, diarrhoea and dementia.

The condition resulting from multiple dietary deficiencies, especially vitamin B2, sometimes “can lead to death”, the United Nations Agency warns.

Dr Mendelsohn records that he found Abyuti “severely malnourished with large pelvic bed sores and unkempt with faeces and urine all over his body.”

“He has features of progressive dementia, which together with clinical history of dermatitis and chronic diarrhoea, which may be a consequence of malnutrition and pellagra,” reads his findings.

The patient had lost senses and ability to care and feed himself, it adds.

“I found him to be confused and not oriented to time, person and place. He was slow to respond, with often incoherent and confused speech,” reads the report.

Then Abyuti was locked up in a cell of his own due to mental illness and his friends say he was strangely aggressive and grubby.

Actually, the doctor wrote prison authorities to transfer him to a chronic care facility or be released to the care of his family.


Justice denied

But Abyuti’s death at KCH brings into question inhumane treatment-especially undernourishment and neglect-faced by almost 14 590 prisoners crammed in the country’s 32 prisons. They were designed to sit 6 221 people.

Abyuti’s brother, Elledi, is seeking justice. He states that the deceased was healthy when the sentence was pronounced in Mchinji.

“I visited him at Maula in 2015. He was in good health, just as he was when he was arrested,” he says. “I was surprised when I visited him in August 2016 that his health was deteriorating. When I asked, he told me that he was diagnosed with nutritional diseases by the prison clinic.”

His malnourished sibling was confirmed to be mentally unwell by December 2013.

According to Elledi, a police van clandestinely conveyed Abyuti’s body to his wife’s home, Gomba Village, where burial took place.

“We were shocked to hear that Abyuti died in prison,” he recalls. “I am not happy with the government’s failure to provide enough food and nutrition to my brother when he was in prison. I feel he was imprisoned to reform and not to die of starvation,” asserts Eledi.

He hopes getting government to account for his brother’s death in court of law may help improve prison conditions.

“I want to seek justice and I have given consent to interested organisations to join the cause,” he says.

Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango says his organisation and Southern Africa  Litigation Centre (Salc) have taken up Elledi’s case “in the public interest” and “on behalf of inmates”.

“What happened to Abyuti is what prisoners go through every day. We expect the court action to hold relevant authorities accountable for the neglect and to affirm human dignity and right to adequate food in prison,” he said.


Monotonous diet

In the country’s prisons, inmates generally eat one meal a day. It invariably includes nsima with boiled peas.

Last year, a study into food insecurity in prison indicated only one in 100 inmates receives extra food from outside prisons.

The majority endure monotonous meals.

In 2009, Gable Masangano, a  prisoner, dragged the punitive diet to the High Court on behalf of all inmates.

The court noted that minimum rations stipulated in the Prison Act have outlived their time and ought to be revised to meet prisoners’ nutritional needs and emerging health challenges.

The court ruled that having one meal a day was “unsatisfactory”.


Long struggle

The Prison Inspectorate in 2004 asked prison authorities “to cut the monotony in maize-peas diet” by introducing vegetables and other alternatives.

Dryly, after nationwide prison inspections in 2016, the inspectorate’s chairperson, Justice Kenan Manda, reported to Parliament that poor diet remains “one of the general recurrent problems” along with overcrowding, poor sanitation and abuse of prisoners.

“These problems have been emerging for some time now throughout reports presented to the inspectorate,” the latest report reads.

The inspectorate attributes “the struggle to provide daily meals for prisoners” to insufficient funding.”

But Elledi and his backers want to change this.

“Abyuti is gone, but government has a responsibility to provide adequate and nutritious meals as well as healthcare services.” n

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