With 150 prisoners escaping from the country’s jails, and only 34 recaptured in the past five years, society’s security has, on average, been infiltrated by one unrecaptured escapee every month, Malawi Prison Service (MPS) statistics show.
Internationally, the allowable escape rate is 30 occurrences per 10 000 population, which means Malawi’s 30 occurrences per year for a population averaging 12 000 inmates may not be a serious cause for alarm, but it is a threat as at least one in three escapees infiltrates society every month.
MPS spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba admitted, in an interview on Friday, that people who escape from lawful custody are a danger to the society as they display a non-reformative behaviour.
The situation has not spared the police, where our analysis found over 30 incidences of suspects—some of whom were answering serious charges such as defilement, rape and robbery—escaping from custody between January 2020 and June this year.
According to published stories by several media outlets that Weekend Nation documented, 14 suspects escaped this year from Nsanje Police Station—10 in January and four in June.
Two suspects answering theft and defilement charges respectively escaped from custody at Lobi Police Unit in Dedza in February, after digging a hole in the wall of their cell.
In April this year, two suspects escaped from Mchinji Police Station, allegedly after being aided by a prison officer.
Last year, five suspects escaped from Mzuzu Police Station in December while, earlier in March James Sambuka, 19, who had been convicted of sexual abuse and impregnating a 14-year old girl, escaped from police custody at Phalombe, on the day he was to be sentenced.
National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera confirmed of our findings, saying all police stations are now on alert and vigilant to avoid a repeat of the Nsanje and Kafukule incidents.
“It is an offence for a suspect to escape while in custody of a police officer, police officers in question are also being disciplined to deter others from being casual in their approach with crime suspects,” he said.
Records from prison show that the country’s prison population fluctuates between 11 000 and 13 000.
Our findings show that 2018 was the worst year when 45 inmates escaped and only nine were recaptured, followed by 2017 when 40 prisoners broke away from jail and, again, only nine were recaptured.
The MPS figures also show that 27 prisoners escaped in 2020 while 26 escaped in 2016 and five and six respectively were recaptured.
The lowest incidences were recorded in 2019, when 15 prisoners escaped and five of them were recaptured.
Prison authorities have played down the prison breaks, arguing that the incidences have reduced in the past two years.
In an interview, Shaba said the number of escapees is now closer to the strategic target of 30 occurrences per 10 000 population per year.
He said: “People who escape from lawful custody are a danger to the society as they display a non-reformative behaviour.”
According to Shaba, the majority of prison breaks occur during farming when inmates are taken to gardens to cultivate.
But our analysis show that a number of incidences involve inmates breaking out of prison by beating the security system.
For instance in 2016 , four remandees at Maula Prison in Lilongwe escaped in what authorities described as a calculated operation aided by people outside of prison.
One of the suspects, Edward Majawa of T/A Kabudula in Lilongwe, was arrested for murder while the other three Chonde Saudi from T/A Kalonga in Salima, Nix Dauda Bonongwe and James Bonongwe both from T/A Chimwala in Mangochi were arrested in connection with a bank robbery in Lilongwe.
The suspects broke a door to the cell before tearing up barbed wire surrounding the prison premises.
In July 2019 two dangerous inmates, Bright Mtelera serving six years and Jones Mkweza serving 10 years for robbery, escaped from Zomba Maximum Prison and the authorities could not explain how they did it.
Mzuzu University-based security expert Eugenio Njoloma, in an interview, observed that prisons lack conducive reformatory conditions, which makes it difficult for the inmates to appreciate the essence of the correctional services.
He added that where reformation has not taken root in the prisoners, it can give rise to recidivism, which can compromise the security climate in the society.
“I think that a decentralised management of the inmates can enhance cohesion and cooperation,” said Njoloma.
He also pointed out that the incidences are exacerbated by limited or lack of combinations of appropriate skill sets among those entrusted with the reformation responsibilities.
The Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance described the trends as unfortunate and called for intensification of security in prisons by recruiting more prison warders to match the warder -prison ratio.
Chreaa executive director Victor Mhango in an interview said some inmates may have problems accepting the sentence and the prison environment, hence the attempts to break free while others are just habitual criminals.
Minister of Homeland Security Chimwendo Banda yesterday described the incidents as unfortunate and a threat to the country’s security.
The Minister said he was saddened to learn that on Thursday some nine suspects escaped in Mzimba under the watch of an officer and was quick to warn responsible officers that the long arm of the law will catch up with them.
Said Banda:” Any officer who is found to have been negligent or had a hand in a prisoner or suspect escaping will be taken to court and prosecuted, this government cannot allow such things to continue happening.