Bartholomew Adamson has been on remand for three years at one of the prisons in the country. He is answering charges of theft. He was found with a missing goat in his village in Balaka, and he is living prison life as if he were already convicted. His chances to appear before a magistrate to prove his innocence are too narrow.
Lack of resources such as fuel, vehicle and availability of a magistrate are some of the factors that delay the process of taking Adamson and other remandees to court.
As a result, most prisons in Malawi have many suspects on remand, leading to congestion. Some have spent many years on remand and by the time they are convicted and given a jail term, they are already used to prison life.
It is against this background that the Centre for Legal Assistance (Cela) introduced a project called ‘Improving living conditions and access to justice for women, youths and vulnerable males’. The project was launched in 2006 and it is supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy.
Cela provides those in need with legal aid, either by investigating their claim and linking them with a pro bono lawyer if the matter calls for legal action, or by facilitating alternative dispute resolution between adverse parties. Pro bon lawyers are those who volunteer their expertise to help those who could not otherwise afford it.
Beyond this, Cela advocates for the improvement of prisoners living conditions in Malawi. This includes implementing sponsored development programmes such as prison facility improvement, administering meetings between development organisations and prison officials, and conducting community outreach and awareness of rights violations in Malawian prisons.
Cela also rescues inmates whose fines are less than K15 000 (about $37.50) from jail sentences by paying fines for them.
“Since 2011 we have paid for about 40 inmates,” says Raymond Mwale, Cela legal officer.
He says Cela conducts camp courts at least twice a month.
“These camp courts are aimed at decongesting the prisons. We basically take the court to the prison. As a result, many suspects get a chance to meet the magistrate unlike when it is an open court,” says Mwale.
The cases handled by the camp court are those of minor offences such as rogue and vagabond, theft, and beating. Cela takes these camp courts to eight prisons including Mzuzu, Nkhata Bay, Maula, Kasungu, Nkhotakota, Ntchisi and Dedza.
In June, first grade magistrates Anthony Banda and Lilian Munthali visited Mzuzu Prison and 32 suspects were given the opportunity to be heard. The camp court worked well for four suspects who were granted bail immediately.
Station officer for Mzuzu Prison, Prince Wasili, commends the camp courts, saying they reduce congestion.
“We had two courts and 32 inmates appeared. Four inmates have been granted bail. We have 42 suspects on general remand and 32 on murder remand. We are also keeping 70 juvenile suspects. In total, we have 576 inmates against our capacity of 250,” said Prince Wasili, station officer for Mzuzu Prison.
Wasili said the congestion of inmates makes it hard for them to effectively take care of them.
“Remandees are supposed to be separated from other inmates and so too with murder remandees, but that is not the case,” he said.
During camp court sessions, an opportunity is also given to Cela and other stakeholders to meet inmates and suspects at one place and share with them information on their rights and duties.
They are also allowed to ask questions and express their situation to the authorities.
During the June session, some inmates wondered why some of their colleagues were serving sentences for what they deemed very small offences. They cited a case of someone who is on anti-retroviral therapy and had been sentenced to two years imprisonment for cutting a live cow.
“We feel two years for him is too much. Was the magistrate really fair in this case?” asked one inmate.
But Munthali said the court looks at various factors before giving a sentence.
“There is a basket of punishments for all offences. We don’t just give punishments for the sake of it,” said Munthali.
Justice delayed is justice denied and suspects do not deserve to be on remand for too long. The camp courts are something that some organisation could introduce in prisons that Cela is not able to reach out to.