Michael first entered Nkhata Bay Prison in 2015 when he was convicted of house-breaking.
To him, it was clear that the congested colonial facility at the foot of steep slopes on the northern shoreline of Lake Malawi was a land of punishment and terror, not a correctional facility as a warder told him on arrival.
“The warder told me I would be here for 72 months [six years], during which I would be undergoing various reformatory courses. I didn’t understand what he meant. All I knew was that prisons are punitive to those on the wrong side of the law,” he recalls.
During his early days, Michael and her fellow inmates would work in a nearby garden where they grew vegetables and sugarcanes.
Sometimes, 30 inmates would go there to till the land and water the vegetables.
“There wasn’t much work. Most of the times, we were just chatting and mining sand from the lake for sale,” he says.
Such was the ease of his “hard labour” for months.
However, things changed later in 2015 when prison authorities secured a five-hectare crop field at Nkondezi where the inmates grow maize.
He says: “Life became a little harder as we spent several hours working in the maize field. But Nkondezi Farm is where I have experienced serious reformation. We learned how to grow maize extensively.
“We learned modern farming practices, including growing hybrid seeds, use of pesticides and farm management. We are exposed to commercial farming as we do everything from tilling the land to harvesting our maize.”
The inmates is expected to walk free later this year.
He reckons he will be “a completely changed person” by the time he is released.
“I’m determined to apply all what I have learnt here in my gardens,” he says.
Nkhata Bay Prison spokesperson MacDonald Migolo described the project as a success.
He says apart from boosting food stocks at the prison which takes up to 280 inmates, the farm project helps prisoners to embrace agribusiness and become financially independent when released.
“We strongly feel that many prisoners appreciate [the importance of] farming because they see what we produce on the farm every year.
“For the three years, we have been producing quality maize which we believe will inspire prisoners to practice the same when they complete their jail terms,” he says.
The project also reduced the burden government shoulders in feeding prisons, says Migolo.
“Last year, we harvested over 300 bags weighing 50 kilogrammes each. This helped us to stand on our own for some months,” he brags.
He is optimistic that this year’s yield will be higher despite erratic rainfall and fall armyworms attacks.
The prison runs the maize farm jointly with Nkhata Bay District Health Office (DHO) to improve the nutrition of the inmates as well as patients at Nkhata Bay District Hospital.
The prison provides labour while the DHO buys seed, fertliser, pesticides and other farm inputs.
The yield is shared equally among the two public institutions, which are grappling with financial constraints.
Among the beneficiaries are patients admitted to Nkhata Bay District Hospital, which was struggling to feed the sick in 2013. The food shortage, which lasted for weeks, was devastating to patients from afar and those without guardians.
Then, food suppliers had stopped supplying foodstuffs to the health facility due to outstanding debts which hospital authorities attributed to inadequate funding.
The then district health officer Dr. Albert Mkandawire initiated the project as a long-term solution to the food struggle.
According to him, both the prison and the hospital stood to benefit from the project.
And it is truly improving the nutrition of patients and inmates.
Migolo urges other prisons, hospitals and government departments to emulate their initiative.
“Departments should use every resource available for production so that government saves money and channels it to other social sectors,” he says.
According to national prisons spokesperson Julius Magombo, other prisons that practise extensive agriculture to improve inmates’ nutrition include Rumphi, Mpyupyu in Zomba, Matchaya in Kasungu and Nsanje.
He says: “Apart from training inmates in modern agricultural skills, we have seen a vast improvement in inmate’s nutrition status as prisons are now able to feed themselves with what they produce.
“You might be aware that funding in government departments has not been that good lately. With this project, government is saving significantly.” n