Inmates at Mzimba Prison have faulted the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu for his statement that the Malawi Prisons Service (MPS) is upholding prisoners’ human rights in the country.
Tembenu said in Mzimba on Thursday that some prisons in the country have started providing three meals per day following installation of 80 electric pots in 17 prison centres.
He said this was not possible previously due to inadequate time in preparing the meals using firewood.
As a result, he said prisons could only provide one meal a day which, he admitted, was a violation of basic human rights as stipulated by the Constitution and other international treaties.
But, surprisingly, inmates at Mzimba, who have received six pots, never applauded the gift during the symbolic handover ceremony.
Worse still, some prison officials barred a group of journalists from interviewing the inmates, telling them to seek permission first and conduct the interviews in the officials’ presence.
But a few inmates that we interviewed without officials’ permission revealed that remarks by the minister and Chief Commissioner of Prisons Kennedy Nkhoma were lip-service.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the inmates said the MPS is neither promoting nor protecting their human rights as claimed by officials at the function.
“Our rights are not being upheld here. We still have food shortage,” said one inmate in a recorded interview.
With funding from the European Union (EU), government procured and installed the pots in 17 prisons where they are in use.
The aim of installing the pots is to improve treatment of prisoners as well as help reduce environmental degradation that results from intensive use of firewood in prison kitchens.
Malawi prisons are overcrowded, with Nkhoma saying MPS has 13 109 inmates against a space capacity of 7 000.
According to a July report by the Malawi Human Rights Commission, the overcrowding affects health of prisoners and access to adequate food and other basic needs.
An MPS report indicates that the overcrowding is as a result of high crime rate in the country, gaps in the criminal justice system, delays in handling cases and limited access to bail and appeal.
Above all, the report says absence of prison facilities in some districts such as Salima, Neno, Rumphi, Chiradzulu and Phalombe is also a contributing factor.
Presently, the Special Law Commission is facilitating a review of the Prisons Act to improve conditions and reduce congestion in the country’s prisons. The process started in 2013, and, hopefully, the draft bill will be presented in Parliament next year.