Death in Nobody’s Hotel

This is a story of torture tolerated, reforms postponed and human rights violations widely accepted, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA writes.


Prisons are no hotels, are they? This question echoes 25 years after Malawi switched to democracy in June 1993.

Malawians mostly evoke the carryover from founding President Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s 31-year reign of terror to sanitise awful prison conditions.

Almost 14 500 inmates are overcrowded in 32 prisons designed to house 6 222. They often eat one meal a day, mainly nsima with either boiled beans or cowpeas.

Prisoners scramble for food at Mulanje Prison

People interviewed on the road to Chichiri Prison in Blantyre say no prisoner deserves three meals a day.

“Jails house lawbreakers, not VIPs to enjoy a three-course meal on taxpayers’ bill,” Enoch Malikebu, 45, from Chilobwe Township, calls this “the crude truth”.

But Section 42 of the Constitution obliges the State to detain people in conditions consistent with human dignity, including adequate nutrition, reading material and quality medical care. In 1995, lawmakers envisaged this transforming punitive prisons into correctional facilities.

But hopes of a just and humane prison regime remain in doubt due to sluggish reforms and indifference to inmates’ rights.

“If prisoners eat three times a day, will they return to their homes? Won’t they commit worse crimes to keep enjoying free breakfast, lunch and supper?” says Ester Magora, from Ndirande.

She adds: “Prisons are not fattening pens,”


Getting thin

Writer-turned-politician Samson Mpasu realised this instantly he was detained without trial at Mikuyu Prison on February 14 1975. A warder forced him to strip naked and squeeze into a tight uniform.

His book, Prison 3/75, quotes a warder angrily yelling “You are too fat,” as he cut the waistband of the undersized shorts.

He says: “This is Mikuyu! You will get thin in no time here.”

Mpasu lost it all.

“The food was becoming more and more terrible by the day,” he recounts. “The nsima was cooked with flour from rotten maize. The aflatoxin in the maize made it taste bitter.”

Malawi Prison Service is somewhat stuck in the distant past where Mpasu, who died of hypertension last week, saw men dying of hunger and dehumanising food.

Over four decades on, inmates and ex-prisoners lament that nsima prepared from decayed flour and “beans in weevils” persist.

During Chirwa’s12-year detention in Cell 2 at Zomba Maximum Security Prison, warders allowed female inmates “a bit of cooking” while her revolutionary husband Orton Chirwa and other men had to eat the prison food “as it was served”.

“And they were dying of dysentery in large numbers,” reads her autobiography, Fearless Fighter.

After her release on January 23 1993, Africa Human Rights Commissioners appointed the first Malawian female lawyer as special rapporteur on prisons.

She ranked the country’s prisons the worst on a continent where “fundamental requirements—food, accommodation, treatment, legal protection, everything— “were very terrible”.

She writes: “There is need to revolutionise the whole penal system.

“African nations cannot afford to give all prisoners bacon and eggs for breakfast, but an absolute minimum standard must be upheld. There is absolutely no excuse for sinking below such standards.”


Slow reforms

Mpasu,Orton Chirwa and other political prisoners staged hunger strikes and smuggled letters in protest the dehumanising deprivations, including “the rotten food”.

But the challenges persist.

Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango says: “The death of Abyuti Phiri, who was jailed at Maula in Lilongwe in April 15 2015, confirms that men are still dying of malnutrition,” he says.

Convicted of housebreaking and theft in Mchinji, Abyuti entered Maula weighing 66kg, but doctors say he checked out severely malnourished, mentally ill and weighing just 42.6kg.

Having lost 23.4kg in two years, he died at Kamuzu Central Hospital on March 13 last year.

Dr Simon Mendelssohn, from Medicines sans Frontieres (MSF), cites a protracted struggle with pellagra, a vitamin B deficiency which leads to dementia, skin sores and diarrhoea.

The medic reports that Abyuti, caged in a cell of his own due to mental illness, was not able to take care of himself.

“He would defaecate on  himself and was left in that condition by prison officers,” says Mhango.

The late Abyuti is the face of a looming trial of prison diet a decade after Gable Masangano, representing all prisoners, moved the High Court to restate prisoners’ rights to humane treatment.

Chreaa and Southern Africa Litigation Centre have engaged lawyer Chikondi Chijozi to assist Elledi Phiri, the deceased’s brother, in pursuit of “justice for Abyuti”.

Chijozi says “unacceptable prison meal” exemplifies punitive and degrading conditions in correctional facilities.

She says: “What happened to Abyuti is illegal and it ought to shock anyone. Relevant authorities must account for failure to meet legal requirements to treat inmates with dignity.

“Prisoners are real people and prisons need to uphold their rights throughout the rehabilitation process.”

The Prison Inspectorate, which reports to Parliament, calls for increased funding for prisons to improve inmate’s diet.


‘Don’t judge’

As the nation looks away, Mpasu’s book unknots something about the punitive conditions that those who believe prison are no five-star hotels sometimes find themselves in.

Even Focus Gwede, the special branch chief who vowed to ensure the author rots in detention, joined a flurry of political prisoners “he had personally locked up”.

When Gwede refused to eat his porridge, irate warders clobbered him and “his hunger strike was over before it had started”.

Mpasu says political prisoners were told in glee a few minutes: “The bastard! How can he refuse to eat poor food which he himself prescribed for others?n


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