At a glance, it is clear that Kasungu Prison is over four decades old. The high wall with one entrance has calm exteriors, with few uniformed men and women going about their business. These are prisoners and prison warders.
The interior of the correctional facility is a different world for the inmates clad in white uniforms, some of whom have been in for years.
Nicknamed Matchaya, Kasungu Prison was built in 1975 to house 200 inmates. However, it has about 450 occupants either waiting for trial or convicts serving sentences of varying lengths.
Robert Foster Phiri, 40, has entered the fifth year of his seven-year jail term.
The man, from Traditional Authority (T/A) Kwataine in Ntcheu, shares his experience in an overcrowded cell accommodating 52 convicts and 15 suspects.
“Inside the cell, lucky are the inmates with blankets. We receive blankets once a year. Long-timers have as many blankets as the number of years they have been here. Those without blankets sleep on the floor until a Good Samaritan bails them out,” he says.
The have-nots sleep in the middle of the cell separated by two small openings armoured with thick metal bars.
The congested prison is severely affected by water woes common in Kasungu. This makes life difficult for Phiri and his fellow inmates.
“We answer the call of nature in a toilet located in a corner, so the water problems mean that we need to get water from outside,” he explains.
Apart from the blankets and few clothes seen in the cell, there are 20-litre gallons used for storing water. The toilet’s water system is faulty, forcing the inmates to use the gallons to flush out urine and faeces.
The cells at Kasungu Police Station are similarly congested.
“Congestion is really a big issue. The police cells are small. We have not been spared,” says station officer Felistas Mazenga.
She attributes the situation to high crime rates, shortage of judicial staff and non-functional court structures. Some arrests are unwarranted and some offenders do not know how to get court bail.
Overcrowding makes it impossible for the country to meet minimum requirements for inmates’ accommodation, nutrition, sanitation, and basic hygiene.
Section 13 of the Constitution allows settlement of disputes through negotiation, mediation, conciliation and arbitration. In fact, Section 161 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code as well as Section 25 of the Local Courts promote amicable settlement of disputes through reconciliation and compensation in line with court regulations.
In line with the legal provisions, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) is running an adult diversion project to reduce the number of inmates on remand in prison and police cells through out-of-court settlements, including negotiations, mediation, conciliation and arbitration.
“This involves the referral of petty cases from the formal criminal justice system with or without conditions to extra-judicial programmes,” says project officer Enock Kamundi.
In this initiative, cases of suspects on remand are heard through court camps without going to brick-and-mortar courtrooms.
“The court sits at the prison to ensure that those with petty or minor crimes are either set free or given bail. In the end, the prison cells will only accommodate a few inmates with major offences,” Kamundi says.
The camp courts is also reducing a backlog of cases in magistrate courts.
Michael Jere, 64, from Mphomwa in Kasungu, rues his time at Kasungu Prison. The 64-year-old was remanded on July 19 on accusations of misappropriating K1.2 million meant for buying tobacco,.
Thanks to a camp court, he walked free 11 days later after accepting to settle the matter with the complainant.
“The camp courts are good. I’m an elderly person with a lot of dependents, including orphans. Many things came to a standstill when I was on remand. But now I am free,” he says.
The day Jere walked to freedom, magistrate Damiano Banda heard 18 cases—with some inmates released and others given bail.
About 54 cases have also been diverted from police through the project supported by Tilitonse Fund. The initiative is also underway in Nkhotakota District, where congestion in prison and police cells is also overwhelming.