By Mandy Potani
Some of the 499 inmates that were pardoned by State President Lazarus Chakwera have complained that they are stranded in various locations they were being held, due to lack of transport to take them back to their homes.
Chakwera, using his presidential powers, ordered for release of the prisoners in a bid to reduce congestion in prisons amid the rising number of Covid-19 cases.
The Sunday Times crew has run into some of the ex-inmates loitering in Zomba and Blantyre Central Business Districts (CBD). The development could also pose the risk of increasing local transmissions of Covid-19, as the freed inmates are coming from highly contagious places. Some of the beneficiaries of the pardon say a week after their release, the Malawi Prison Service (MPS) has been unable to facilitate their travel, as required by law.
One inmate from Zomba Maximum Prison, who asked to be identified as Charles, said he is currently stuck at Matawale in Zomba, hundreds of kilometres away from his home in Chikwawa District. He said they were asked by prison authorities to wait for transport arrangements within the prison facility, a suggestion which was not welcomed by him and other colleagues.
“A prison is not a good place, the living conditions there are not conducive and it is hard for any
human being to put up with such when you know you are supposed to be out here; that is why some of us out of the 64 declined to remain in there waiting for transport arrangements, however we have heard nothing promising from them even after inquiring,” he said.
Stanley Gondwe of Karonga District, who was being kept at Mzuzu Prison after being convicted on charges of theft, shared his experience, saying he has been spending nights in Mzuzu Bus Depot, raising concern of starvation.
A Prison Warder, who opted for anonymity at Mzuzu Prison, said it is illegal to keep in cell any person who has been cleared or has completed their sentence, adding that the MPS is however most of the times unable to fulfil its obligation due to resource constraints.
When contacted, MPS spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba conceded that there were no logistical arrangements for the pardoned inmates, saying they only budgeted for those that were on due release list.
“You will appreciate that in MPS we do not keep petty cash, it was difficult to hold them so that we exhaust all government payment procedures, but in the future we hope to arrange for a special fund that may come in handy for such unexpected mass releases,” he said.
Reacting to the development, Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) Executive Director Victor Mhango observed lack of proper modalities when facilitating presidential pardons, attributing the problem to lack of funding.
He also faulted health authorities for failing to engage MPS on matters of mass screening and quarantine services for suspected carriers of the Coronavirus who are among the pardoned group.
“This has been a challenge for some time, prison facilities barely have the capacity to arrange for transport for inmates who have been released or completed their sentences, it is never on their budget. As it stands, those are some of the things that the Covid-19 committee should have factored in. Otherwise there is a risk that such people will commit other offences and they will be back in prison,” he warned.
As of August 19, the MPS had registered 280 Covid-19 positive cases with two deaths.