As institutions start complying with President Peter Mutharika’s directives on coronavirus (Covid-19), CSOs have urged government to release at least 7 000 prisoners to ensure inmates are safe from the virus.
The civil society organisations (CSOs), namely Paralegal Advisory Service (Pasi), the Southern African Litigation Centre (Salc), Youth Watch Society, Universal Health Coverage Coalition (UHCC) and Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) have since proposed an urgent decongestion of the country’s prisons as a preventive measure against the pandemic.
Chreaa executive director Victor Mhango said at least 50 percent of inmates in the country’s prisons should be set free following President Mutharika’s directive restricting gatherings of over 100 people at one place.
Currently, there are 14 000 prisoners in the country which means if the CSOs request is implemented, 7 000 inmates will be released.
Mhango observed that the country’s prisons are overcrowded with over 14 000 prisoners against a capacity of 5 000 inmates, who are supposed to be accommodated in the 28 prison facilities nationwide.
According to the 2019 Inspectorate of Prisons report, Malawi’s prisons’ population is at 260 percent higher than the official capacity.
For example, Maula Prison in Lilongwe was designed to accommodate a maximum of 800 inmates, but the monthly average population hovers around 2 200.
This situation, according to Mhango, would rapidly increase the number of infections should the disease be diagnosed in the country.
He said the current prison conditions will result in much higher mortality rates than seen elsewhere, given the scale and the speed at which Covid-19 virus has been spreading.
In an interview on Monday, he observed that prisons do not have capacity to contain the situation; hence, the need for President Mutharika to release prisoners.
Said Mhango: “The best solution is to decongest the prisons by pardoning some prisoners who are serving minor offences, including elderly inmates and those women with babies. Almost 50 percent of the prisoners are not dangerous; they cannot re-offend. The idea is to save lives of Malawians because prisoners’ health is public health.”
Meanwhile, UHCC chairperson George Jobe has backed the call, saying the move will be in the interest of the universal health coverage policy which aspires to give equal health treatment to all people regardless of their status.
He said: “We expect technocrats to make clarification because at the level of presidency, [President Mutharika] may not answer all the questions.”
On Friday, President Mutharika declared the country a State of Disaster following the outbreak of the virus that had killed over 13 000 people globally and infected over 300 000 as of last week.
Asked to comment on whether the President will release the prisoners, State House press secretary Mgeme Kalilani said Mutharika only provided a wider spectrum of strategy to combat the pandemic.
He said: “What the President provided are essentially broad policy positions in as far as government’s strategy for combating the threat of coronavirus.
For specifics, please contact the Cabinet Committee on Coronavirus.”
Prison Department spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba said in a written response to a questionnaire on Monday that the department has not yet received any release order to facilitate decongestion of inmates.
But he said they already put measures in place in trying to prevent the pandemic from spreading to prisons. Shaba said: “What the department has embarked on is to ensure that coronavirus doesn’t find its way into prisons. Intensification of hygiene practices, limiting contact between a visitor and an inmate and posting of fliers in all the facilities are some of the measures currently put in place in our facilities.” Shaba, whose department works hand in hand with Ministry of Health to promote health standards in prisons, said the department will constantly engage relevant stakeholders to effectively handle the situating in case of an outbreak.