At times, it really serves right to get personal. Some things a pretty well understood when you personally go through them.
There was a time I visited Dedza Prison. At the time, it was a story about toddlers in prison. The laws of Malawi provide that mothers on the wrong side of the law should be accompanied by their children who are aged below three to prison.
This is so primarily because of the bonding between mother and child, which is important in early childhood development.
At the time, I found that this woman in Dedza did not have one or two toddlers with her in jail. There were three! One was born while she was in prison as she was arrested while a few months pregnant.
It was really disheartening that cold Saturday morning to see the two older toddlers playing around the courtyard near the female section of the prison. The woman told her story with the new-born in her hands.
The woman had been convicted in a crime where she is said to have called a person with albinism ‘capital’. Get me right, it was very wrong for the woman to say such a thing against a fellow human being, at a time killings of people with albinism were rampant.
But then, was it right for the magistrate to slap the woman with such a custodial sentence? Wouldn’t it have worked to give her a suspended sentence? Wouldn’t it have worked to commit her to do community service?
Well, she had no lawyer to argue her case, that much as she was guilty, a lenient sentence would deter her from repeating the mistake.
In 2007 or thereabouts, I found myself inside the walls of Zomba Maximum Prison, with some church. The prayers were hearty, especially when the prisoners and men of the collar sang such songs as Paulo ndi Sila anapemphera, zitseko zandende zinatseguka (Paul and Silas prayed and the gates of prison broke open). My interest was one of the inmates, who could go across the barrier separating the prisoners from the outsiders.
At one point, he came to me. Out of interest, I asked him what crime he committed and how long he was in the prison. He said he had been there on remand since 1981 for the murder of a woman at Hotel Chisakalime. Those who have been in Blantyre for some time will know the type of man he must have been before he went ‘ku Malawi’ as the territory inside prison walls is called.
The inmate said it was actually his friend who had killed the woman in a jealous-infused and drunken brawl. While on remand, the man who had killed his girlfriend came to apologise for the incarceration. The inmate said he had resolved his fate to God, and was teaching Mathematics, Commerce and Accounting (he had been an accountant at a bakery before he was jailed) in the prison school. He also taught French and was glad to enjoy some prison freedom as a ‘nyapala’.
The next time I met the man, it was somewhere in Blantyre’s Ali Hassan Mwinyi Road. I was surprised. The man told me he had been given temporary relief and was given bail pending trial after a paralegal argued in a prison camp court that given his good conduct in prison, and also the nature of his case, he should be released on bail pending murder trial.
I could go on and talk of the victims of the laws of poverty like rogue and vagabond. I could go on and talk about the 13-year-old who stayed in an adult prison until he was 17 simply because his release depended on ‘the pleasure of the President’!
These and many other stories come to mind as the Malawi Law Society (MLS) is taking a hard line against an amendment to the Legal Aid Bureau Act to allow the bureau’s paralegals represent their clients, who are mostly poor, in some cases. MLS initially committed that allowing paralegals would lower standards.
The layman reads that as saying it would mean lawyers would not have their cut in such cases.
In another argument, MLS commits that allowing the paralegals would be unconstitutional, as the supreme law provides that the State should bear expenses for legal representation for the poor.
While we are at it, the prisons are congested with people who committed petty crimes. They end up there because for some reason or the other, they had no one to represent them.
We hear the Legal Aid Bureau has 25 lawyers, who are expected to handle 23 000 cases. That means, each lawyer has a backlog of 900 cases! The paralegals would help ease this unnecessary pressure.
MLS knows full well that justice delayed is justice denied. It should have taken time to listen to the arguments from the Judiciary (which has so many cases to handle, like the Bureau), as well as the Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament.
I fail to find the merit in the MLS arguments if poor women like the Dedza inmate will continue doing time for crimes that could have attracted lesser sentences.