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Zomba prisoners miss out on Covid-19 release

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There was no prisoner released from Zomba Maximum Prison from the 1,392 inmates who have recently been freed, as a measure of decongesting the country’s prisons in the wake of coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

A prisoner from Zomba Prison, who opted for anonymity, told Malawi News that prisoners at the facility were shocked and worried that none of them was considered for release despite the facility having at least 2,000 prisoners against its actual capacity, which is about 800.

“From the list of prisoners that was announced to have been released as a preventive measure against Covid-19, I can assure you there was no single prisoner from Zomba. We wondered that if the idea was to decongest prisons then why skip Zomba Prison yet it is one of the congested prisons in the country,” the prisoner said.

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The release of the prisoners, under the Chilungamo (Justice and Accountability) Programme, an initiative funded by the European Union (EU), follows camp courts, prison inspections and screening of critically ill inmates which has seen those who could have been released later this year being released last week.

Malawi Prison Service (MPS) spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba confirmed the development but was quick to say that a judge of the High Court of Malawi Commercial Division, Kenani Manda, who chairs the prisoner’s inspectorate would be better placed to explain.

“That is in the wisdom of the judge because the conditions may differ, the conditions for releasing inmates as per directive of the President may not apply to what the judge was basing because that was not a presidential directive. He may be better placed to explain as to why nobody was released from Zomba Maximum Prison,” he said.

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Shaba further said the recent release of inmates was not a presidential pardon, adding that presidential pardon involves all prisons.

“Let me clarify that this was not a presidential pardon…the prisoners who were released recently were released by the Prison’s Inspectorate under the banner of Chilungamo (Justice and Accountability) Programme. Of course the inspectorate on its own does not have mandate to release inmates.

“But its core function is to inspect the prisons to ensure they are adhering to the rules of keeping prisoners, in terms of infrastructure, dietary needs and other things. It is chaired by a judge so sometimes they use their powers as High Court Judge to review the files and release some inmates. Some inmates were given suspended sentences some completely pardoned,” he said.

According to the 2019 Inspectorate of Prisons Report, Malawi’s prisons’ population is at 260 percent higher than the design capacity.

Traditionally on July 6, the President pardons prisoners and in line with this President Peter Mutharika is poised to pardon some prisoners as recommended by the prison authorities based on varied factors, including health, good behaviour and those about to finish serving their sentences

In a televised address last month, President Mutharika announced measures that would be employed as the country combats the Covid-19 outbreak, one of which was the directive that some prisoners should be freed to ensure that the country’s prisons are decongested.

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