Congestion in prison, any hope?

Maxwell Makande, 37 of Msambuka Village, Traditional Authority Malemia in Zomba, walked into the walls of Chichiri Prison in 2007 after being found guilty of possessing stolen goods.

Makande says the five years he stayed in confinement exposed him to the poor conditions that inmates put up with in prison. He was released in November last year.

The former convict says he now knows Malawi better after testing life in prison.

“Life in prison is hell. I don’t even understand where the penalty rests because the poor conditions alone are worth the sentence,” says Makande.

He says night time is the worst as cells are very congested and prisoners live on survival of the fittest.

Makande says he was in Remand Cell 1.The cell is designed to accommodate 80 prisoners, but according to him, the figure is always close to double.

Prisons Service national spokesperson Evance Phiri confirms that the capacity for Chichiri-Prison is 850, but currently it has 1 171 inmates. The same goes for Maula, whose capacity is 800, but it has 1 990 while Mzuzu Prison which is supposed to keep 290 prisoners, currently has 433.

Makande says each prisoner sleeps while seated in a space of about 30 square centimetres.

“There is no lying down to sleep at Chichiri Prison. We are packed like soap in a carton. All newcomers sleep at the centre in rows with legs folded and backs leaning on each other. They are painful nights,” he narrates.

He says people always complain of pain when standing up in the morning, adding he cannot imagine how painful it is for overweight and tall people.

“I could hardly walk in the first days, my body always felt exhausted. It is hell and I don’t want to hear anything about imprisonment now,” laments Makande

He adds that the cells are untidy. New infections, particularly influenza and skin rash are reported almost daily.

“If you walk out of prison healthy, then you have to thank God. Today’s prison sentences are not for reformation but hell. I truly feel this is an abuse of human rights. It is not even easy to access medication because what is available at times are only painkillers,” says Makande.

Despite that the prisoners are always subjected to hard work, they live on a meal each day. The meal (nsima) is not even attractive nor healthy. It is very soft and in a porridge state.

Challenges being faced by Chichiri Prison are almost the same in all prisons. The prison service is incapacitated. The population is so high that it has affected the quality of the services.

While claiming he has no information on the situation in prisons as described by Makande, Phiri says the prison used to provide a single meal per day, but they have recently introduced porridge in the morning.

“However, in most prisons, this [the porridge] is yet to start because of lack of big cooking pots. On lack of medicines, each prison has a clinic and sick prisoners access treatment there,” says Phiri.

He adds that the congestion in prisons makes it impossible for them to provide two meals a day.

“To do that, we would need a lot of flour, which we cannot afford. But the single meal (nsima) that prisoners get is large enough for two meals,” he explains.

Malawi’s prisons were designed to accommodate 6 000 prisoners, but by December 31 2012, the country’s prisons were reported to be accommodating 13 000 prisoners.

With the community service order not making much headway, is there hope for the congestion in prisons to ever end?

The country’s  Constitution established a legal order requiring that every citizen should fully enjoy their God-given freedoms and rights. And former South African president Nelson Mandela once said: “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

The Constitution has a bill of rights which includes rights of those found on the wrong side of the law. The country is also a signatory of various international conventions that seek to protect the rights of those found to be on the wrong side of the law.

Despite this, inhumane conditions, fuelled by congestion in the country’s prisons, are denying inmates of their dignity.

Some legal analysts have argued that the country’s sentencing system is not helping to reduce congestion. This is what led to the introduction of the Community Service Order (CSO).

This came with the amendment of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code. Section 364A of the code allows the Court to impose CSO as a punishment to a convict where the offence is minor and the court intends to impose a sentence of less than 12 months imprisonment.

Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal and Blantyre High Court acting registrar Mike Tembo says CSO is going on smoothly and the task remaining is to sensitise the public. However, the impact of the initiative seems to be operating far from the expected relief.

Out of over 4 000 cases registered by police every year, less than 1 000 people are put on community service.

For example,  in 2012, police arrested 4 688 suspects nationwide, but only less than 900 convicts were on community service. This explains why the prisons are still congested.

Phiri suggests the need to review conditions of the CSO.

He says the initiative is becoming unproductive because CSO considers very minor cases which, he says, are not common these days.

“Most cases committed nowadays are a bit serious. That is why it looks like the initiative is not effective. We need to rework on the first document so that it encompasses all common cases in today’s world. In this way, we can see many offenders on CSO,” he says.

Phiri admits his office does not see any hope of reducing prison congestion soon.

He pointed out the practice of keeping lawbreakers on remand for too long as another challenge facing his office. He cited Chichiri Prison which, as of December 2012, had 261 suspects on remand.

He says his office is currently focusing on constructing additional cells at each prison.

“We also plan to start constructing prison blocks in districts without prisons,” he says, adding: “Currently, our only hope to see reduced congestion in prison rests on the yet-to-be constructed Lilongwe maximum security prison, because our efforts of adding cells in prisons have not shown great impact recently, especially with the fall of Karonga Prison,” explains Phiri.

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