Zomba Maximum Prison warders yesterday stoned their bosses when they wanted to disperse them from the correctional facility’s main entrance which was sealed with tree branches and handcuffs.
Later when the stoning ceased, the senior officers, with the help of at least 11 inmates, cleared the prison’s main entrance.
One of the warders, who opted for anonymity for fear of reprisals, said following a meeting they held with Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security Grace Chiumia on Saturday, they resolved to continue with a peaceful sit-in until they got feedback from the minister.
However, he said amidst the sit-in on Sunday, newly-appointed chief commissioner of prisons Wandika Phiri in a memo commanded the officers to “absolutely” call off the strike.
“You are directed to return to your normal duties with immediate effect as management is pursuing the issue of salary harmonisation between the Malawi Police Service and Malawi Prison Services.
“In view of the foregoing, you are strongly warned that failure to adhere to this directive is tantamount of mutiny and management will not hesitate to immediately take necessary action as stipulated in Section 58 of the Prisons Act,” reads part of the memo.
In reaction, the warders described the memo as intimidating.
“We are not going back to work as we are tired of this tradition of ‘management is resolving our issues’ as, since time memorial, when we return to duties in obedience to their promises, the matters die silently. Therefore, this time we have stood our ground not to go back to work until we get a tangible answer from government,” said the source.
Meanwhile, the strike paralysed operations at prison as police prosecutors were denied access to take suspects on remand to court. The law enforcers were also not allowed to leave convicts at the correctional facility.
On the other hand, visitors who came to see inmates are also being denied entry into the prison premises since Friday.
James Mkwanda from Nselema in Machinga regretted wasting his time and money to see a relation at the facility only to be denied entry.
He called on all stakeholders involved in the issue to resolve the matter swiftly and amicably for the benefit of the inmates and the public.
“We are worried about how tough life is for inmates inside without the presence of the warders as they are the caregivers of our relatives. We appeal to all stakeholders involved in this issue to act accordingly,” he said.
Another lady who identified herself as Mrs. Banda, who had travelled from Lilongwe, concurred with Mkwanda, saying the matter needs to be resolved quickly.
“I am psychologically affected with this strike as my relative has just been jailed last week and I [wanted] to cheer him up, but to no avail,” she complained.
However, when contacted for comment Malawi Prison Service national spokesperson Smart Maliro denied that top officers were stoned.
Meanwhile, commenting on the threat to invoke Section 58 of the Prisons Act, Malawi Human Rights Commission chairperson Justin Dzonzi cited the country’s Labour Relations Act, saying any employee has the right, as one way of bargaining for better working conditions, to withdraw labour.
He said if government takes such action on the officers, it can be challenged. Dzonzi said in such a case, chances are high that the labour courts may rule in favour of the affected employees.
Dzonzi observed that the Prisons Act singles out employees doing essential services as not being allowed to withdraw labour as one way of forcing their employer to meet their demands.
According to Dzonzi, the responsible minister is supposed to designate what constitutes essential services.
But Solicitor General Janet Banda argued that labour laws may only protect an employee if all procedures were followed before commencement of industrial action.
“I am not sure if all procedures were followed .There are steps that are to be followed before going ahead with a strike; if they have done all that then it is different ,” she said.