By Wezzie Gausi
From the point of arrest to the point of sentencing, the criminal justice system in Malawi is riddled with chronic shortfalls and unprofessional conduct, leading to gross violations of human rights of prisoners, an investigation by the Malawi Inspectorate of Prisons has established.
In its report released this week, among other things, the inspectorate documents personal experiences which suspects have had at the hands of magistrates and police.
The litany of abuses includes keeping suspects too long on remand – in some cases as long as 14 years – without being taken for trial, magistrate courts giving priority to some cases while ignoring others, the system meting out unlawful and unnecessarily harsh sentences and young offenders being charged in wrong courts.
According to the report, signed by Malawi Inspectorate of Prisons Chairperson Justice Kennan Manda, the way the courts, the police, legal practitioners conduct themselves exacerbates the already vulnerable position of and in February 2021 found recurrent general problems such as poor sanitation, poor diet, overcrowding, poor ventilation, low staffing, abuse of pre-trial custody limit and poor provision of health services.
It also found staggering levels of overcrowding in the prisons at 278 percent beyond the designed capacity.
For instance, Thyolo Prison which was designed to accommodate 60 inmates has 252 inmates, Chichiri Prison meant to accommodate 634 inmates has 1582 inmates and Maula Prison in Lilongwe which is meant to have 1411 prisoners has 2350 inmates.
“This amounts to a violation of the right to freedom from torture, cruel and inhuman treatment,” reads the report.
Speaking during the presentation of the report in Lilongwe, High Court Judge Mzonde Mvula of Zomba Registry corroborated some of the findings of the report.
He admitted that there are breaches in the manner in which the criminal justice processes are being applied.
He said the High Court is, now and again having to review the sentences made by magistrates after noting numerous anomalies in them.
“As the High Court of Malawi, we are doing our best to help the prisons and inmates attain the justice they need. We have a programme where judges visit the prisons and look at the files of the inmates. During this process some inmates are released and some charges reviewed,” Mvula said.
He added: “We can confirm that most prisons have people that have been on remand for a long time, which is a challenge that the justice system has to look into. Most often we have found people serving a sentence that was not to be as given by magistrates.”
Executive Director for Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) Victor Mhango, who is also a member of the Malawi Inspectorate of Prisons, said there is need for Parliament to pass the amended Prison Bill, which has been on the table for so long, to eradicate some of these challenges.
“We believe if the amended bill is to pass there will be a total turn around in the way things are happening in prisons.
“We also want the name of prisons to change to correctional services, as that will give hope to the inmates that they are where they are to be transformed, to be better people and not just to be punished. We need all stakeholders to join hands and help the welfare of inmates and prison as an institution,” Mhango said.
Chairperson for the Budget and Finance Committee of Parliament Gladys Ganda said it is high time government prioritised pertinent issues like the ones facing the prison service.
“It is very sad to note that the little money the prison makes through farming is deposited into a government account number, when the funds should have been used to help ease some of the challenges facing the prison.
“As a committee we will be lobbying from the ministry of finance to allocate funds that will be used by the prison inspectorate which currently does not have a secretariat,” Ganda said.