The country’s inmates will have to endure degrading treatment in prisons for some time as government is not yet ready to enact proposed amendments in the Prison Act as recommended by the Special Law Commission (SLC) seven years ago.
SLC commenced a review of the Act in 2013 to align it with the country’s Constitution and minimum international standards for treatment of prisoners.
But seven years later, the proposed bill is yet to be presented to Cabinet for its review before it can be tabled in Parliament, Weekend Nation has learned.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Homeland Security Kennedy Nkhoma justified the delays, arguing the review was a comprehensive process and required more time for stakeholders to acquaint themselves with the proposed reform activities.
He said his ministry will soon initiate dialogue with the Solicitor General and the Cabinet Office on the Bill. The meetings, he said, will lay the ground for Home Affairs and Justice and Constitutional Affairs ministers to meet.
Said Nkhoma: “In all essence, I cannot say the Bill has delayed because the law needed to be given space [to put in place] measures for operationalisation of the Act.”
But rights activists have faulted government for the delays which they attribute to lack of political will.
Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director for Victor Mhango observed that in the recent past, the executive prioritised a number of bills which were tabled in Parliament and passed while the draft bill on the Prison Act was shelved.
Said Mhango: “Where is government commitment when it comes to prisoners’ rights? It is only when an influential politician or businessperson has been sent to prison that you hear or see government officials talking about the need to improve prison conditions; after that the urgency to have the bill passed into law is forgotten.”
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) is also of the view that the proposed law is effective and predictable in the delivery of justice.
MHRC director of civil and political rights Peter Chisi observed that there are cases of inmates who have stayed on remand for as long as 10 years without having their sentences confirmed by the High Court.
Said Chisi: “At the moment the country relies on presidential pardons, a process which is not transparent and predictable enough, and in the past years, it has resulted in some prisoners being wrongfully pardoned including some dangerous criminals.”
Some of the recommendations in the proposed legislation include:
lThat living space in prisons should be regulated by a legislation that has to be developed.
lProvision for house detention for prisoners with special needs, whose condition has deteriorated to the extent that insisting on imprisonment would threaten their lives.
lThat no child shall be admitted into prison under any circumstances and pregnant women should be admitted to a prison that is closer to a health facility and when she is due to give birth, provision should be made to allow her give birth.
lThat it should not be mandatory for an un-weaned infant to be admitted with a female prisoner.
lImproving procedure governing the granting of pardon as a way of reducing overcrowding in prison facilities.
An amendment to Section 3 of the Advisory Committee on the Granting of Pardon Act which comprises the President, ministers, an appointed committee and Attorney General.
According to Malawi Prisons Service annual report of 2009, actual capacity of inmates was 5 610 but there were 11 518 prisoners.