Inmates at Zomba Maximum Security Prison have complained to Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa), accusing authorities of undignified treatment.
But Malawi Prison Services (MPS) spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba, while acknowledgeing the action they took, said prison warders used “reasonable force” to avert a serious prison break threat they faced.
In a communication to Chreaa on September 19, the prisoners claim some prisoners were stripped naked, denied food or thrown feaces at on September 18 following some disagreements with prison warders.
In an interview on Thursday, Shaba said the atmosphere inside Zomba Prison on September 18 2021, when these incidences unfolded, was tense and they could have registered a record prison break if it were not for the courageous prison warders who fought back to foil the move.
He said: “What triggered the chaotic scenes was an order issued by prison authorities stopping prisoners from buying food from outside the prison. The inmates violently attacked prison warders in protest of the order. “
State-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has since launched an investigation into the matter.
The incident also forced prison authorities to transfer 200 prisoners to other prisons nationwide as an internal security measure, according to Shaba.
The prisoners that reported the matter to Chreaa complained they were still naked with feaces all over their bodies at the time they were making the complaint through a phone call last Sunday.
In an audio clip from the phone call, the inmates claim they had no access to water or bucket, plate and cup–which are basic utensils for prisoners.
One prisoner complained: “We’re naked now as I speak, chibadwire chenicheni [in our birth suits]. All we have are two blankets we were allowed to take in. We’ve no food, no water. We only request to be allowed to go out to take a bath to remove these feaces they threw at us.
“We do not see the logic for the prison authorities to prevent us from buying food from outside when the prison diet is poor.”
But Shaba in the interview said the rioting inmates were forced to take their clothes off when prison authorities were trying to get them back into their cells to ensure they had no contrabands on them.
The Prisons spokesperson disputed accusations that prison warders threw feaces on the inmates, arguing it was actually the rioting inmates who threw feaces on prisoners ‘leaders’ (anyapala) when they tried to reason with their fellow prisoners to calm down.
Nyapalas are inmates that have served much of their prison term or those that have displayed good manners who are appointed as leaders of their fellow prisoners.
On starving the inmates, Shaba explained that the authorities could not have opened the cells to serve the prisoners food when it was not clear that the prison break threat had been contained.
Said the spokesperson: “The threat was serious. We keep over 2 000 inmates in that facility. Prison officials were under attack as inmates threw dangerous objects at them. We don’t know what would have happened if prison officials did not stand strong to defend themselves.”
Shaba said the authorities also conducted a search that targeted mobile phones and all other prohibited items inside the cells.
“The inmates were too violent and they started it all. All we did was order that no more buying of food from outside. But the reaction was bad and they used foul language on our officers while stoning them savagely. It was chaotic and tense moment,” he said.
Local mobile network provider, Telekom Networks Malawi (TNM) revealed in August this year that over 91 percent of mobile money fraud cases originate from Zomba Maximum Security Prison.
TNM chief executive officer Arnold Mbwana Parliamentary Committee on Media, Information and Communication during a meeting in Lilongwe that prison warders were also involved in the syndicate. He said TNM detected that a majority of phone calls from fraudsters that swindle customers come from Zomba Maximum Prison tower. Meanwhile, MHRC spokesperson Kate Kujaliwa said the commission has launched an investigation into the matter.
In a response to a questionnaire on Thursday, she said MHRC launched an immediate investigation after learning of the allegations through social media.
Said Kujaliwa: “MHRC has confirmed that fracas took place inside Zomba Prison on this day, and were still in the process of establishing what exactly happened.”
Shaba said he was not aware of the MHRC’s investigation, but said they welcomed it as they had nothing to hide.
Chreaa executive director Victor Mhango confirmed that his office received complaints on the prison fracas, saying they are still working on establishing what happened.
He described the developments as regrettable, urging prison authorities and inmates to coexist to avoid such incident.