Around midmorning on February 20 2015, gates at the Zomba Maximum Security Prison swung open to let out a 59-year-old man.
As he left the prison a free man, one would have expected Byson Kaula to go straight home following his release after nearly 24 years.
Kaula was sentenced to death in the early 1990s allegedly for the murder of one of his farm workers but he was released after his case was reheard last year.
Instead of going to his home in Khoswe Village, Traditional Authority Nsamala (T/A) in Balaka after his long incarceration, the father of six headed for the Halfway House in the district.
Kaula was at the Halfway House for a few hours before he was taken to his village to meet his relations. He was in the village for two days and then returned to the Halfway House, and has been there since.
“I wish we had many such facilities in the country. They are doing a commendable job empowering released prisoners,” Kaula told Mana about the Halfway House.
He says: “If it were not for the Halfway House, I would have found it very difficult to survive, having stayed in prison for many years.”
Halfway House is a programme that the Prison Fellowship Malawi (PFM) runs and aims at empowering released prisoners with vocational skills before their integration into the community.
The programme began in 2005 and nearly 400 ex-inmates from across the country have so far passed through the Halfway House, according to Rodrick Zalimba, PFM executive director.
“More than 90 percent [of released prisoners] have been successfully reintegrated into the community,” Zalimba told Mana at the Halfway House campus in Balaka Town.
He says the programme came about following increased trends in reoffending among released prisoners.
Zalimba says there were evident gaps whereby ex-inmates would reoffend within a short period after their release from prison.
“The Halfway House comes in to connect the released prisoner with their family and community. Where there were issues to do with broken relationships, efforts are made to facilitate reconciliation,” he says.
The Halfway House programme is an affiliate of Prison Fellowship International (PFI) headquartered in Washington DC, USA, but it is available in 130 countries worldwide.
PFI works with and through the church and community for justice and the transformation, reconciliation, and restoration of prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families, victims and communities.
PFI was formed through the experience of one Charles (Chuck) Colson, who served a sentence for conspiracy related to the infamous Watergate scandal during the presidency of Richard Nixon.
According to a PFI brochure, following his release from prison, Colson could not forget the fellow prisoners he had left behind.
The brochure says what sustained Colson through his prison ordeal were the friendship and care of a group of special friends who visited him and supported his family.
Colson saw a clear difference in prison between those who had no one and nothing to live for and those who had a support system in the community.
He came to see that prison does not change or rehabilitate offenders. Real change was evidenced among those prisoners whose lives were transformed through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Colson’s return to prison renewed and inspired an interest in and recognition of the importance of church and community involvement in corrections.
In 1979, representatives from prison fellowship groups in six countries met in Washington DC to form prison fellowship International as an association.
Zalimba says when an ex-inmate reports at the Halfway House campus, they sit down with the released prisoner and a kind of interview takes place “to get to the bottom of their life journey.”
“This marks the beginning of our five-month walk with the ex-inmate which initially takes us to their home, irrespective of their case,” he says.
“When we get to their home, we establish how the family feels about their member who was incarcerated and we explain to them how we are trying to help.”
Zalimba, who has headed the programme for almost 10 years, says the Malawi Prison Services approached the Halfway House after seeing the success of the programme and the two institutions have since signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU).
The MoU provides a leeway for serving inmates to go and finish the last part of their sentence at the Halfway House.
The Halfway House helps prisoners released through the Kafantayeni Project to be reintegrated into the community.
And Kaula, now 60, is one ex-prisoner who walked to freedom because of the Kafantayeni Project. He is at the Halfway House where he has acquired tailoring skills and also works as a volunteer chaplain.
At the Halfway House, ex-inmates are introduced to vocational skills such as carpentry and joinery, tailoring, agricultural production which encompasses livestock, poultry and maize production.
Besides vocational skills, the programme also provides released prisoners with psychosocial counselling.
“How I wish we had many Prison Fellowship organisations in the country,” says Kaula, whose wife died while he was in prison.
Kaula, who escaped death after the hangman postponed his execution on three occasions, says his life has “stabilised” with his stay at the Halfway House and looks to the future with renewed hope.
“I can see the difference between a free person and one who is in prison. Now I know God. The prison fellowship must be thanked for doing a commendable job to ex-inmates,” he says.
“How would you expect someone like me who stayed in prison for 24 years to lead a normal life again? Right now, I have no worry because I am employed by the prison fellowship.”
Zalimba, however, says his organisation urgently needs support to sustain its work.
“We need help from donors and local NGOs,” he says. “There is need to help these people [the estimated 14 000 inmates] across the country.”