By Alick Ponje:
Locals in areas surrounding Makande Prison in Thyolo East routinely visited the little garden belonging to a man who had been growing vegetables for over a decade.
Every morning and evening, as he watered his crops, women flocked to the garden to buy vegetables for lunch or supper. Sometimes, he could not meet their daily demand.
But a few metres away, they have found hope in an rare place. A prison, without the archetypal high walls, is growing vegetables in great quantity on its acres of space.
“We get all kinds of vegetables here, fresh from the field. It saves time since the nearest marketplace is some 20 minutes walk away,” says Chrissie Chathyoka who sells sugarcane near the correctional facility.
The prison’s expansive farm, teeming with vegetables and healthily green-leafed maize, is being tended by frisky inmates who are adamant about where they are.
Nearby, snorts of pigs and bleats of goats— belonging to Makande Prison Farm—reminds those nurturing them about their obligation, firm enough not to take them down the primrose path.
“We are not in prison. We are in a place where we are undergoing rehabilitation and it is all-round,” says Zakalia Magaleta, who is in-charge of fellow inmates.
There is noticeable vigour and optimism in his voice as he addresses Minister of Homeland Security Nicholas Dausi who has visited the facility to appreciate its reform programme.
As Magaleta speaks, there are recurrent, lively sounds of approval from those he overseas— who are sitting on a tidy pavement while Dausi and senior prison officials listen absorbedly.
“This is a learning institution. Among us are carpenters, welders and agriculturalists. There even are those who have mastered operating heavy machines that produce blended flour and soap,” Magaleta explains.
The healthful blend which reaches primary and nursery schools in Thyolo, Mulanje and Chiradzulu districts, free of charge, is the inmates’ partial contribution to improving the nutrition statuses of learners.
With just a flick of a switch, a handheld machine seals 25-kilogramme bags of the flour which are ready for dispatch to far-afield places.
Through such acts, the inmates are giving back to society which must have primarily condemned them for the crimes that landed them in the restoration facility.
And Dausi glowingly buys that line of thought.
“These people are going through correctional services, not punishment. Prisons should be managed in a humane way and that is what is happening here at Makande.
“Even the impression of people out there about these inmates is that they are and can be productive citizens. This is something they will continue doing beyond their time here,” he says.
Dausi then waxes lyrical about the aroma of the flour blend which feeds other prisons and 36 schools in the three districts.
As, like greased lightning, machines clean, roast and grind corn and soybean to produce the flour, the inmates operating them, wearing neatly pressed white shirts and shorts and white gumboots, have mastered what would typically be possible in a technical school.
“They are producing something unique. It is impressive how they have mastered the skills and knowledge. It simply shows how, as a country, we can benefit from the talent that we have, especially from the youth,” he says.
Having previously toured Domasi Prison, which is also into the farming business, Dausi props up his optimism that the aim of inmates coming out reformed is making sense.
Nevertheless, he concedes that for the process to be ultimate, concerns such as congestion and sanitation have to be looked into.
They are among those raised by Magaleta who declares that the far-reaching rehabilitation of inmates is feasible from what has already been set in train.
Even Chief Commissioner of Prisons, Wandika Phiri, envisages a prison scheme that allows those it keeps to feel like they are in their communities.
They must harness hope more than horror and worry; away from the cutthroat treatment which often left them taking no prisoners.
“We are migrating to rehabilitation so that those under our custody can gain skills which will allow them to be productive when they get out,” she says.
Some inmates, Phiri explains, got into the correctional facilities with the skills, which they are improving, while others are learning them there, actuated by the desire to be relevant.
For Makande Prison, which is devoid of the traditional high fences with barbed-wire tops and world-weary ambiances, there is one or two more life skills for the inmates.
“We have given them a vote of confidence and it is up to them to shove it away. By keeping them in a prison without a fence, we are showing the world that these people can change,” Phiri says.
And as the prison’s backdrop swells with dense crop fields, the fresh-faced youth with their neatly pressed garbs rather see that as the fruit of their labour and not an opportunity to bolt.
They have become students of their own faults and hope that, while their crimes cannot be wiped out, their lives can be recreated so they do not have run-ins with the law again.