NICE helps decongest Malawi prisons through camp courts

That congestion has reached a crisis in Malawi’s prisons is no longer news. Both the government and its partners have admitted that prisons in Malawi are heavily congested, with the current population being more than double the estimated capacity.

This has led to serious health issues in reformatory facilities and these are leading to the death of inmates.

To address the problem, National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) Public Trust has been facilitating camp courts in police stations and prisons to expedite administration of justice for the underprivileged suspects.

First Grade Magistrate Phaiya–This is a commendable programme–Photo by Watipaso Mzungu

The camp courts are being conducted through its Access to Justice Programme, which the European Union (EU) is financing as part of its efforts to promote access to justice for vulnerable groups in Malawi.

NICE District Civic Education Officer (DCEO) for Salima and Nkhotakota, Queen Mkandawire-Mataya, said the major goal of the programme is to improve the institutional capacities and coordination mechanisms of oversight institutions.

Mkandawire-Mataya further stated that the programme seeks to create a fair and effective legal environment that promotes and consolidates the rule of law, equal access to justice, and respect for human rights and enhance civic education, awareness and capacity building to demand transparency and accountability.

“It was disheartening that despite employing various mechanisms to reduce congestion in reformation facilities, overcrowding remains a big problem mainly because although many are being released, a lot more are also being admitted into the prisons,” she said.

“So, our role as NICE is basically to enhance civic education, awareness and capacity building for citizens to demand transparency and accountability thereby addressing the country’s core governance challenges of lack of transparency and accountability among duty-bearers and limited access to justice for vulnerable groups,” added Mkandawire-Mataya.

Mkandawire-Mataya briefing Nkhotakota Court Users Committee the intention of Access to Justice Programme—Photo by Watipaso Mzungu

At a case screening exercise at Mchinji Police Station recent, paralegal officers, criminal investigators from the police and NICE officials released on bail three suspects accused of human trafficking.

They also disposed of several other cases and unconditionally released the suspects.

Mchinji NICE District Civic Education Officer, Emmanuel Pilirani Banda, said the major objective of the camp court is to promote rule of law by expediting administration of justice for people suspected of being in conflict with the law.

“NICE is particularly concerned with the delays in delivery of justice to suspects. It is against this background that we initiated this programme to facilitate speedy delivery of justice for all suspects irrespective of their financial and economic status,” said Banda.

A recent update from the EU indicated that overcrowding in prisons has reduced from 260 percent to 186 percent. The update shows that 3, 903 prisoners have been released from the country’s 29 prisons since the programme was launched in July 2018.

Malawi Prison Service spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba confirmed the development, saying the programme has helped ease congestion in the country’s prisons.

“It is a fact that our prisons are congested. The number of inmates doesn’t tally with the recommended holding capacity. So, this project has helped create breathing space and ease the burden of financial challenges we face in looking after the inmates, especially considering the Covid-19 effects,” said Shaba.

According to the EU update, about 1, 729 prisoners were released at the peak of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nkhotakota Legal Aid Officer Lusubilo Zimba and First Grade Magistrate Felix Phaiya hailed the programme, saying it has helped in decongesting not only police cells, but also prisons thereby enabling Malawi Prison Service to focus on improving conditions of inmates.

However, renowned governance and human rights expert, Undule Mwakasungula, recommended that the country’s criminal justice system should also consider community service for minor offenders with the aim of reforming and rehabilitating offenders.

“Community service also reduces stigma and discrimination against offenders as society often feels prisoners are bad citizens,” said Mwakasungula.

Various stakeholders have blamed the prison congestion on an archaic Prisons Act that does not provide room for decongestion.

The Prisons Act was enacted on April 23 1956 to provide for the establishment of prisons within Malawi and a Prison Service, among others.

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