Awful state of Malawi Prisons is damning verdict on the country

“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

As the story on plunder and looting of state resources (cashgate) slowly fades from serious public discourse, the New Year (2014) emerged with the news that prisoners have not been spared the blunt of mismanagement of state resources. Inmates at Maula Prison were spending the festive season on empty stomach due to lack of foodstuffs. Maula is 800 prisoners capacity prison but currently accommodates almost three-times as much prisoners, 2,300.

It is not surprising that average Malawians have a low opinion of prisoners, and you cannot blame those holding this view. Prison is supposed to be home for unruly and dangerous people that are harmful to society and people that may be a threat to national security and peace. Yet the state is supposed to look after their welfare. This is why the shortage of food in prisons, like cashgate revelations are symptoms of a broken and failed system of governance, transparency and accountability.

Failure to accept these facts leave us with symptoms and not root causes to deal with; failure to deal with root causes means that we are always living to fight another day. If not the same problem, a different one from the same root will crop up somewhere.

Look at cashgate, it is now a political battlefield for politicians and clash of elite personalities, no longer a symbol of bad governance, lack of transparency, lack of accountability and impunity that allowed civil servants to steal as they pleased. Likewise, the lack of food in our prisons has turned out to be a political issue and not a humanitarian problem caused by poor governance and a system that is happy to trample on the most vulnerable among its citizens.

A prison facility in Ntcheu, central district of Malawi
A prison facility in Ntcheu, central district of Malawi

Taking someone’s civil liberties away is what a prison punishment is. Nothing more. Nothing less. It is fine and sometimes necessary that society debates about lenient or harsh prison sentences – based on crime committed versus sentences given. Those not satisfied with sentencing have channels within the justice system to convey their grievances but disregarding sadistic prison conditions is a simple case of cruelty and not punishment. This is why I agree with human rights activist, themselves former detainees, Billy Mayaya and Habiba Osman who recently called on Malawi government to respect and guarantee prisoners’ rights.

It is the government’s duty to look after its prisoners’ health and general wellbeing. It is is not an act of charity, it is an obligation. Prisoners, though deprived of some freedoms, remain citizens of Malawi. That is one of the reasons they vote, and yes politicians in this country are aware of it and they want prisoner’s votes. This explains why some politicians, in good faith or otherwise, were quickly to offer foodstuffs for the starving prisoners. Yet they failed to put pressure government to ensure that this does not happen again. What happens when the donated foodstuffs are over?

True compassion, argued Martin Luther King Jr., is more than flinging a coin to the beggar, instead, he added, true compassion comes to see that an edifice which producers beggars needs restructuring. Indeed, feeding prisoners in times is need is commendable but can we also try to address social factors contributing to the ever growing prison population. People are products of their environment. This does not a need political solution because it is a social and human rights issue. Because of politics, some incompetent officials are getting away with a serious violation of the republican constitution.

Section 42 (1)(b) of the constitution provides that any person who is detained, including every sentenced prisoner shall have the right to be detained under conditions consistent with human dignity, which shall include at least the provision of reading and writing materials, adequate nutrition and medical treatment at the expense of the state.

There it is, plain and simple. Prisons are not much different from outside world; some of the pertinent problems faced in the outside world are in prisons too. There are HIV positive people in jails whose lives depend on ARVs to remain healthier and prolong their lives. For these drugs to work effectively, patients need good nutrition and X amount of meals a day. The Nation newspaper reports that Home Affairs Minister has conceded that there is not enough money to cater for all the prisoner’s needs.

By the way, why are Malawians not debating the overcapacity in prisons? Why are prisons this full? Is it to do with the justice system or broken socioeconomic fabric that is increasingly leading people to disregard laws? Do we need more prisons, as the Home Affairs Minister say the government is planning to do, or do we deal with socioeconomic problems leading to increased crime levels?

Whatever the case, over-capacity in prison is violation of people’s rights and it cannot be tolerated. It is inhuman and it is an act that defines Malawi as a country more than it “punishes” those in jail. The idea of a modern prison is not to punish the body and torcher one’s soul, it is to reform prisoners into better citizens. Nelson Mandela once argued: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Now what is your judgement on Malawi?

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