Henderson Zambezi (26) of Mitete Village, Traditional Authority Mpama in Chiradzulo spent the festive season behind bars at Wenela Police Station in Blantyre.
Zambezi, who is unemployed and survives on piecework, was arrested and charged with rogue and vagabond after being found inside Blantyre Market at odd hours.
“I spent three weeks in a police cell at Wenela Police Station before going to court. The police alleged that I wanted to steal in the market. I missed the whole festive season,” says Zambezi.
The three weeks he spent in police custody were not just painful to him but also his brothers with whom he lived in Mbayani.
“I live with my two brothers in Mbayani. They are both in school. The day I was arrested, we had nothing to eat in our house. I had gone out to search for food to take us through the festive season,” he says.
Zambezi says the brothers spent the whole night looking for him and they learnt after three days that he was in police custody.
“They did not eat anything for the three days and had already started getting pressure from the landlord that they would be evicted. As I am speaking now, they are still out of school and my mother is living in dire poverty in the village because she also relies on me for help,” says Zambezi.
After three weeks in the cell, Zambezi, a third born in a family of five, expected another long time away from the family serving prison sentence. To the contrary, Zambezi is not. Not that he is free.
He is serving his month-long prison sentence while operating from home. Thanks to the Community Service Order (CSO) sentence.
CSO is a system of sentencing convicts with minor offenses to serve their prison sentence outside the prison walls by working in communities.
During hearing, judges sentence the convicts to imprisonment and when the punishment is less than a year, the sentence is suspended and transferred to CSO.
According to acting registrar of Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal and High Court of Malawi Mike Tembo, the system was introduced in 2000 as one way of controlling congestion in prisons.
It came with the amendment of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code. Section 364 A of the Code allows the court to impose CSO as a punishment to a convict where the offence is minor and the court intends to impose a sentence of less than 12 months imprisonment.
Zambezi is serving his sentence at the High Court in Blantyre. He is seen slashing off grass, then sitting for a while to rest his back or walking outside the premise in a manner that prison inmates only dream of.
He works without any guard around him, and reports to the supervisor after the day’s task.
“I am enjoying my sentence because unlike in prison, I am at liberty to work for just two hours and then do my own things. I thank the High Court for the system,” said Zambezi.
He says he is able to support his family because he does piecework after his community work. Zambezi was given 40 hours to do community work and by Tuesday this week, he had done half the work.
Tembo says the system is a relief. He says over the past decade, they have kept 900 offenders out of prisons every year.
“This is a big figure, if this system were not there, all these people would have joined the already congested prisons,” says Tembo.
He adds that the system has the potential to reduce congestion in the prisons.
According to Prison Services national spokesperson Evance Phiri, there are about 13 000 prisoners in Malawi. However, the prison service was designated to accommodate only 6 000 prisoners.
Senior assistant officer for Blantyre CSO office Tiyamike Nihorya says although the service is running smoothly, it is being crippled by the sentencing system.
He says since its inception, his office is yet to appreciate such sentencing coming from High Courts. He says the majority of people on community service come from magistrate courts, leaving many people with minor cases serving a prison sentence.
Phiri suggests that there is need to review conditions of CSO.
He says the initiative is becoming unproductive because the guideline for people to get CSO considers very minor cases which, he says, are not common these days.
“The majority of cases committed these days are a bit serious. That is why it is appearing like the initiative is not effective. We need to rework the first document so that it encompasses all common cases in today’s world. In this way, we can see many defaulters on CSO,” he says.
Nihorya says some of the laws which are used by the country were adopted sometime back when there was not even a car and so they leave out some vital property. These cause problems when passing judgment to cases involving vandalism of other property.
According to Nihorya, another challenge is frequent abscondment of community work.
“CSO gives liberty to the prisoners as they operate from home. They take advantage of this to abscond from the service. But the laws are intact, anyone who runs away from the sentence, if convicted, must be imprisoned,” says Nihorya.
Nihorya says his office is planning to carry out a sensitisation campaign and talk to leaders of institutions to be professional when handling supervision tasks on people on CSO, saying their work is a contribution to the development of the country.
CSO assigns prisoners to work in their communities. If the prisoner is qualified in a certain field, he/she is assigned to perform duties related to their field.