Twelve years after an earthquake crashed through Karonga District, destroying over 5,000 buildings and killing at least four people, the lakeshore district’s main prison has not been purposely rebuilt.
Delays to replace the correctional facility— which crumbled to its foundations in the December 19 2009 disaster—has forced authorities to keep 45 inmates only while sending the rest to neighbouring Chitipa, Rumphi and Mzimba prisons.
Construction works were supposed to commence three years after the seismic activity.
Now on a hot morning at the prison, some inmates are preparing lunch while others are sitting idly in a tree shade, sharing stories.
The dilapidated facility does not have a fence. The prison cell-block, which looks like an office, is also in ruins.
“After the earthquake struck, the government transferred all prisoners to other prisons. In 2012, there was heavy rainfall that caused flooding,” Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Karonga Prison Emily Banda says.
The Department of Disaster Management Affairs instructed authorities to completely close down the prison.
After that, government identified a place where the new correctional facility would be constructed.
After commencement of works the project was abandoned and the area has now been encroached by communities who have built houses there.
“But since people were still being arrested, their relatives complained that Rumphi, Chitipa or Mzimba prisons were too far. So, we reopened Karonga Prison with makeshift cells. We only keep prisoners who have been sentenced to five years and below because our security is not that tight,” Banda says.
The prison also keeps convicts whose sentences are close to completion.
Suspects who have been remanded to the prison are kept at Karonga Police Station, which is overwhelmed and resource constrained.
Karonga Police Station Osman OC Gondwe says their resources are being drained because they provide food to the remandees who were supposed to be fed by the prison.
“Then, there is congestion in our cells. Sometimes, when we have funds, we send them to Chitipa, Rumphi or Mzimba. It is costly on our part,” Gondwe says.
On fending for prisoners, OC Banda says she cannot feed a suspect on remand at Karonga Police Station as that is not her jurisdiction.
“It is the duty of the police to do that because the suspect is in their hands. What if the suspects escape? Who will be responsible?” Banda says.
Apart from Karonga, other districts that do not have fully functional prisons include Mchinji, Salima and Phalombe.
Minister of Homeland Security, Richard Chimwendo Banda, admits the situation needs urgent attention.
“It is true that we do not have anything that we can be proud to say we have a prison facility in Karonga. But the government is taking care of this.
“We raised this issue with Treasury and what we are waiting for is funding. It will not be Karonga alone; the funds will cater for other prisons,” Chimwendo Banda says.
Due to the Covid pandemic, the government has tried some interventions such as pardoning prisoners to decongest the reformatories.
The past one year, the government has pardoned about 6,500, inmates, according to the Ministry of Homeland Security.
Still, prisons are overwhelmed with a population of around 13,700 against the holding capacity of 7,000 inmates.
Other interventions are being undertaken by civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Paralegal Advisory Services Institute (Pasi) under its Access to Justice through Village Mediation and Paralegal Services project.
According to Pasi, through the project supported by European Union and United Nations Development Programme, its paralegals have offered legal advice to 313,431 people directly or indirectly in conflict with the law in police stations, prisons and courts.
The paralegals have also facilitated the release of 93,898 detainees from correctional facilities, juvenile centres and police stations.
Such efforts, still, need more support if prisons were to be decongested.