Malawi Prison Service (MPS) has attributed failure to implement recommendations, including the 1997 condemnation of Zomba Central Prison for not meeting minimum standards to keep prisoners, as well as other services to funding challenges.
Ministry of Homeland Security Principal Secretary Sam Madula yesterday said the situation in the country’s prisons reflected the level of funding MPS gets from government.
He said: “I cannot cheat you. The situation in our prisons is dire not only in terms of infrastructure, but as well as diet, security features, transport, equipment that includes uniforms both for warders and inmates.
“It is not a secret that there have been funding challenges towards MPS. Government has a lot of priorities. For example, you cannot expect us to build a K15 billion facility when we cannot even afford to buy uniform for staff or inmates. Our project at Chitedze [to build a new prison] which we hoped to reduce overcrowding stalled due to the same funding problems.”
Madula prayed that a solution was found to end the predicament, highlighting that in other countries public private partnerships (PPPs) in management of prisons have proved workable.
In 2014, a Malawi Human Rights Report (MHRR) stated that the Prisons Inspectorate in 1997 condemned the country’s oldest correctional facility, Zomba Central Prison, as unfit for human habitation, but the facility has remained in use up. It currently keeps 2 166 inmates against its designed holding capacity of 756 when it was built in 1935.
Prisons Inspectorate was established by Section 169 of the Constitution and started its operations in 1995 to monitor conditions, administration and overall functioning of penal institutions taking into account applicable international standards.
In the past four years, budget allocations to MPS show an upward trend but have not matched the demands for construction of a single modern facility with the Chitedze Prison project in Lilongwe initially estimated at K10 billion stalling for years.
In the 2018/19 financial year, MPS was allocated K9.1 billion while in the previous fiscal year, 2017/18, its allocation was K8 billion.
In contrast, MPS was allocated K4.1 billion and K4.8 billion in the 2015/16 and 2016/17 financial years, respectively. The allocations were expected to cover construction of new prison facilities in Lilongwe and Mzimba.
Currently, the country’s prisons have 14 778 inmates against the recommended holding capacity of 5 500, according to the 2014 MHRR.
Over the years MPS has struggled to contain a myriad of problems, including shortage of space and diet.
Zomba Central Prison, which is a maximum security facility, has in recent years been vulnerable to security lapses with the latest case recorded in January this year when two inmates escaped before they were recaptured later.
Similar incidents of prison breaks have been reported at Mikuyu also in Zomba where nine prisoners escaped in 2016 after another four escaped at Maula in Lilongwe the same year.
Current Prisons Inspectorate chairperson Kenan Manda, a judge of the High Court of Malawi, in a telephone interview yesterday, said his committee has reiterated the need for new infrastructure for Zomba Central Prison.
He said: “The general recommendation for Zomba Central Prison has been that there is need for new infrastructure. Not only for Zomba, but other facilities as well. Mind you, this is the only maximum security prison the country has.”
The country has 29 prisons with Maula being the biggest holder of inmates at 3 026 against the recommended capacity of 480.
Reacting to the situation, Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango, in a telephone interview yesterday, blamed Parliament for not prioritising prisons when making allocations to various sectors.
He said: “If you look at all the problems, it boils down to failure by parliamentarians to allocate enough resources towards correctional services.
“Most people have a stigma against prisons because in their view prisoners do not deserve any better. But imagine if Zomba Central Prison was a hospital or a school, people would have lobbied for more funding.”
In its recent report, the Public Sector Reforms Unit in the Office of the President and Cabinet indicated that the Prisons Department made positive strides in cultivation of some crops and rehabilitation of infrastructure. The report cited harvesting of about 52 000 bags of maize each weighing 50 kilogrammes as one success story.
In the Gable Masangano versus Attorney General case, the High Court ordered government to improve living conditions in the country’s prisons.