A public health expert says the more than 1 300 released inmates were safer in prison than outside and will now require protection from the virus.
Adamson Muula, a professor of epidemiology and public health at College of Medicine in Blantyre, said this in a response to a questionnaire seeking expert advice on dealing with prisoners in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But Malawi Prisons Service says new entrants into prisons are merely subjected to basic tests; hence, inmates are in more danger outside.
Said Muula: “The concern of releasing someone with Covid-19 from prison into the community does exist. At present, there is no evidence that anyone has been infected by the new coronavirus while in prison in Malawi.”
He added: “Depending on what is going on within prisons, things may change and I suspect the authorities should be able to recalibrate what they are doing.”
He insisted that the risk for inmates is more to do with people from outside that get into contact with the prisoners.
“Covid-19 within our prisons will not start from the inside. It will start from the outside. It will be important to observe and limit people coming into contact with prisoners,” suggested Muula.
He said Covid-19 is an evolving issue and there is so much learning that needs to be done in such a short-time.
“I believe prison authorities should be updating the society and the prison communities as to what is going on and also get input from key stakeholders, including prisoners themselves,” said Muula.
He further said prisons are at risk all the time of admitting individuals who may have infectious diseases, a situation whose avoidance is a responsibility of the Prison Medical Services.
“You will observe that the Prison Medical Services has been running HIV and Aids, as well as tuberculosis programmes and for the most part, these have been going on reasonably well for many years.
“In terms of Covid-19, I believe the Prison Medical Services are following the advice from the Ministry of Health and then customising this into their own setting,” Muula said.
He said latest cases of Covid-19 in Malawi are from people who have recently returned from other countries and he expected the Prison Medical Services director to give guidance that remandees or convicts with a history of recent travel from other countries should receive special attention.
Muula further explained that apart from prisoners, prison warders are part of the equation and they need to be protected, and they also need to protect the inmates.
Meanwhile, Malawi Prisons Service (MPS) has said it is yet to identify isolation centres in case Covid-19 hits prisons.
According to Prisons national spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba, there are only four correctional facilities with testing equipment, the thermometer gun, and these are Chichiri in Blantyre, Mzuzu, Maula in Lilongwe and Zomba Central Prison.
He said his institution has sourced 10 more thermometer guns to be distributed to other prisons.
Shaba admitted that for the recently released 1 392 inmates, the institution was only conducting basic tests on them.
He said new entrants into prisons are not tested in those facilities where they have no equipment, but it is their wish to equip all the facilities to make them safe for both old and new inmates.
Apart from the 1 392 prisoners released on the European Union (EU) funded programme, more prisoners are set for release after President Peter Mutharika, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, directed MPS and juvenile centres on April 4 to present a list of prisoners and juveniles who committed petty offences.
The President also directed that those who have served a significant port of their sentences for minor crimes should have their names presented to the Minister of Homeland Security for consideration.
Government is currently conducting full Covid-19 tests on people that have shown symptoms such as fever, coughing and sneezing or were reportedly in contact with someone that tested positive.