January 23 2020
Two interesting things happened this week. On the one hand, First Capital Bank Group chairperson Hitesh Anadkat handed over a prison block to Blantyre Prison (often called Chichiri). The banker, whose bank has branches in five other countries, built the K350 million 384-bed block to ease congestion.
On the other, the Anti-corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested another prominent banker Thom Mpinganjira, who is group chief executive officer of FDH Financial Holdings Limited and chairperson of the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom). As I am writing, we have just woken to the news that Mpinganjira was released late in the night after a magistrate in Zomba quashed the warrant of arrest the ACB obtained from another magistrate in Lilongwe.
It is not for me to question if magistrates work up to midnight. Neither can I ask if a magistrate can quash another magistrate’s order. That is for the legal minds.
It was interesting sitting through Anadkat’s handing over the block at Amarylis Hotel in Blantyre. I found several things he said piercing.
He said the prisons are congested with people who committed petty crimes. He asked the gathering if there was any who had never committed a crime that could have led to their incarceration. There was a din of silence.
Taking his turn, Homeland Security Minister Nicholas Dausi, chipping in with his usual Socrates, Plato and other quotes plucked from encyclicals, conceded, saying we all may face prison some day. That harsh reality!
My interest in Malawi prison life began after reading a book by the Irish priest Padraig O’Mailley entitled Living Dangerously. The book chronicles the hard knock life during the one party state, which exposed how hard life was political prisoners like Brown Mpinganjira.
Then, there was Sam Mpasu’s Prisoner 3/75 of Dr Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. That autobiography touched the inner cells of my heart on how prison can be used to break and dehumanise strong people.
I first went into prison on duty as a journalist some time back at Zomba Central Prison. Upon going through all the formalities and on entering the prison gates, one of the inmates cried out my name. It was a friend from secondary school!
It dawned on me, then, that chances are high anyone can end up in jail, like Dausi and Anadkat said. Then another inmate told me he had been in that prison for over 12 years on remand, no trial!
That taught me you can spend time in those harsh conditions without trial.
Since then, prison life has always fascinated me. Of course, there was a very bright side to prison when I visited Makande Prison in Thyolo. There was no perimeter fence and I could see prisoners going to the nearby local market freely. With assistance from the Crops of Love Ministry, the prisoners here were also raising chickens and growing crops.
The other day, I was touched by a juvenile who spent seven years in an adult prison. The magistrate who sent him to jail only said he would only be released at ‘the pleasure of the President’.
Then, there was a time, at Dedza Prison that I met a mother who was incarcerated together with her three toddlers. The babies were aged no more than three years. It is provided by Malawi law that children aged three and below should accompany their mothers in jail. That is for mother-child bonding but I had problems with that particular case since the crime the mother committed was petty and she deserved a non-custodial sentence.
It is a given fact that our prisons are congested with poor people while those with something in their pockets wallow the streets freely.