Laurent Kaonga, 40, is a worried inmate at Mzuzu Prison following the outbreak of coronavirus. He is concerned about a health risk that suspects on remand bring to the correctional facility on a daily basis.
“We receive between 10 and 20 suspects on remand almost every day. We don’t know about their Covid-19 status. Worse still, they are not isolated for the required 14 days. We fear for our lives,” says Kaonga, who is serving a six-year jail term for theft.
He says the facility is also congested such that social or physical distancing, as a preventive measure against the spread of coronavirus, is practically impossible.
“Our cells are congested and there is no breathing space. It is practically not possible to be a metre apart from each other.”
As of last week, Mzuzu Prison had 869 inmates against its capacity of 500. It has seven cells, each holding over 100 inmates.
“If we are to achieve physical distancing then each cell needs to have no more than 50 inmates. This means at least half of the inmates have to be released if the Covid-19 measures are to work properly,” says Kaonga.
Mzuzu Prison officer-in-charge Zacchaeus M’bawa admits that those on remand put lives of fellow inmates and warders at risk.
“The major threat we have are those on remand. We don’t know where they are coming from. And, worse still, they come into our facility without being tested for Covid-19,” he says.
M’bawa says the facility has put in place various preventive measures, but reckons that these are not enough in the absence of confirmatory tests for those on remand.
The prison’s spokesperson McBeth Wasambo says in the absence of mandatory testing, government needs to decongest the facility by releasing at least half of the inmates.
Wasambo says prison personnel also need personal protective equipment like face masks, gloves and hand sanitisers to be used when they get into contact with new inmates.
Mzuzu Police Station officer-in-charge Lovemore Mwabumba says suspects are remanded at Mzuzu Prison as a way of decongesting their holding cells.
“We are, currently, working on decongesting our cells. We are providing bail to suspects arrested on petty cases. Those with serious offences are remanded at Mzuzu Prison,” he says.
On April 4, President Peter Mutharika ordered the release of some prisoners to decongest prisons as a way of preventing the spread of coronavirus in prisons.
Malawi prisons were designed to hold 5 500 inmates, but, as of last week, they had 14 000 inmates.
The Malawi Inspectorate of Prisons recommended that half of the country’s inmates should be set free to achieve physical distancing.
The inspectorate’s chairperson Kenani Manda, a judge in the High Court of Malawi’s Commercial Division, told Nation on Sunday that congestion in prisons provides a fertile ground for the spread of coronavirus.
“It is important that we must decongest the prisons. If we could at least release half of them [prisoners], then that could be an ideal situation,” he said.
Manda said the inspectorate is currently reviewing prisoners’ files to see if they qualify to be released.
Meanwhile, about 1 392 inmates were released last week courtesy of the Chilungamo (Justice and Accountability) Programme which is funded by the Europe Union (EU).
The programme’s team leader Sophie Racine said the prisoners’ release was screening of the critically ill and prison inspections.done following camp courts,
Said Racine: “These activities happen in normal time, but Chilungamo is happy to make this extra effort now to ensure that we protect the lives of the prisoners. Decongesting Malawi prisons is extremely important at this point, more than ever before.”
However, Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance executive director Victor Mhango says the release of prisoners under this initiative should not be confused with the presidential pardon of prisoners that they are waiting for.
“The President has not pardoned anyone yet since the declaration was made. We are still waiting for his promise,” he says.
Wasambo agrees, saying Mzuzu Prison has not released anyone as a result of the presidential decree.
Sources indicate that up to 3 000 names have been submitted for the presidential pardon.
However, Minister of Homeland Security Nicholas Dausi says the ministry is scrutinising the submitted names to ensure that those released have really transformed.
“It is easier to release those who committed petty crimes. But for the other crimes, the submitted names need thorough scrutiny on the behaviour and moral character of the inmates. That is being done,” he said.