Philanthropist Hitesh Anadkat says government red tape and magistrates’ propensity to punish all convicts with custodial sentences is worsening congestion in the country’s prisons.
Anadkat, who is First Capital Bank Group chairperson, said this yesterday during the handover of a K350 million prison block he has constructed at Blantyre Prison, commonly known as Chichiri.
He said he was touched after seeing pictures of prison congestion and expressed the desire to construct additional prison blocks 12 years ago, but the dream to start constructing the 384-bed block started to materialise nine years later due to some government officials’ red-tape.
With a capacity of 800, the prison epitomises the extent of congestion in Malawi prisons as it now holds 2 000 inmates.
Said Anadkat: “I was shocked when I saw pictures of prisoners sleeping like sardines, so close to one another they could scarcely turn. This was 12 years ago and I started to engage prison authorities and the Ministry of Home Affairs. For the first nine years, I faced nothing but apathy from people overseeing prisons.
“I met a number of ministers and told them I want to help. They thanked me and said they would revert but they never did. One minister sent senior prison officials who said I should just give them the money and they would get it done. I would not do it that way.”
On the other hand, he took a swipe at the Judiciary, saying the system oppresses the poor.
“I have heard a story of a poor old woman who was sent to prison for stealing shoes for his daughter to go to school. Most of those in prisons are petty criminals and a good number are on remand for years on end,” he observed.
Anadkat pleaded for non-custodial sentences for those in non-violent crimes while also calling for monitoring of magistrates’ sentences and urging the donor community and other well-wishers to build better prisons.
Minister of Homeland Security Nicholas Dausi acknowledged the red tape in government, saying it delays some projects.
“It is unfortunate that our technocrats are at times slow in the way they carry out their duties. We just dream, but implementation becomes a problem. If you need a trade certificate, it would take you a year because of such bureaucracy,” he observed.
On commuting of non-custodial sentences, the minister said his ministry is working with the Judiciary on meting community service, adding prisons should move to being reformatory.
Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango in an interview said the bureaucracy may have been ignited by the belief that prisoners do not deserve better conditions.
“If it were for a school, that dilly-dallying could not have happened. It is also unfortunate that magistrates were commuting non-custodial sentences only when there was a project and a lot of stakeholders following its implementation. Now magistrates no longer give out such sentences,” he said. In July 2019, Dausi said the Malawi Prison Service was implementing reforms that are expected to change the institution’s focus from punishment to reformation and correction. Among the reforms, the service was working on introducing a parole system that would see prisoners being released before the expiry of their sentence on promise of good behaviour.