On April 5 2016, Mwanza Magistrate’s Court sentenced Destiny Phiri, 24, to six years’ imprisonment for burglary and theft.
“I bought a DVD player, a decoder, a TV set and speakers which I later learnt were stolen. When the case went to court, the seller implicated me, He claimed that I was part of the gang that stole the goods,” says Phiri, now jailed at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre.
When he stepped into the overpopulated confinements of the maximum security, he thought he was detained to rot.
Then, Phiri was teaching at Rose Clob Private Secondary School, a school owned by the Assemblies of God Church.
“I had no other skill. This was a job that kept me going after obtaining Malawi School Certificate of Education [MSCE] at Ngabu Secondary School in Chikwawa District,” he says.
Rekindling the dream
But Phiri is not a guy who gives up easily.
Despite being jailed two years ago, he still believes that he will walk free and make up for the lost years when his term is over.
His hopes to reconstruct his life got a boost when he re-sat MSCE examinations in the 2016/17 academic year.
Throughout the second chance, he dreamt about going to university to study education.
“I scored 13 points. Unfortunately, I wasn’t selected to University. It hurt. Maybe, it was because of the choices I made. My grades favoured science courses. Competition may have been stiff in that area.”
But he does not despair any longer.
Phiri is among inmates who are undergoing a three-month training in information and communication technology (ICT) within the high walls of the correctional facility.
The class comprises 11 inmates and 11 warders.
The course offered by Lilongwe-based computer company, Simtech, is premised on the belief that giving inmates relevant skills will transform them from lawbreakers to progressive citizens when they are released.
The trainees will be awarded certificates by the Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training (Tevet) Authority.
“Most of us, if not none, would not have afforded this course even if we were not imprisoned or remanded. The financial burden for one to attend such a course is just too high for most of us. We only admired those who could afford it,” says Phiri.
Assistant commissioner of prison Bryton Siwera feels the newly acquired ICT knowledge will be useless if the beneficiaries do not put their skills to good use.
“We need to groom these inmates to have an entrepreneurial mindset. In this case, they need tools as a starter pack. Considering their current status, some well-wishers need to come to their rescue,” he says.
The course includes software and hardware repairing as well as elements of entrepreneurship, deliberately to entrench a business mindset.
Section 163 of the Constitution gives Malawi Prisons Service (MPS) the mandate to house, detain and rehabilitate persons sentenced to imprisonment.
The country has 32 prisons which are supposed to hold 6 221 prisoners, each occupying no less than two square meters.
However, the correctional facilities are rated among the highly congested, punitive and inhabitable as they now hold almost 14500) prisoners. Chichiri Prison holds slightly over1 800 inmates.
Simtech director Dan Matope says to reduce crime rates, prisons need to live up to their core purpose of offering reformatory services and rehabilitation to convicts by giving them relevant skills.
Without this, he says, prisons could be silently breeding hardcore criminals and highly dependent citizens.
“When people are in prison, they receive visitors who bring them food. They survive on handouts, a hand-to-mouth lifestyle. Nothing prepares them for a life after their time in prison. When they are released, for lack of things to do some go back to their old ways.
“We need to break that circle if we are to develop as a nation. Imparting skills like these is one way of giving them the right capacity to stand on their own once their time is up,” says the trainer.
Twelve inmates and 12 warders at Mzuzu Prison were the first to benefit from a similar initiative from Simtech.
Phiri hopes to walk to freedom on July 4 2020.
“When that day dawns, I will be the happiest. For me and my 10 colleagues, the just completed course offers us a one-off but vital push to stand on my own.”n