LILONGWE, MALAWI – The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Malawi has donated 350 three-tier bunk beds, 1050 mattresses and three soil rippers to support crop production and enable inmates to sleep in dignity in one of Malawi’s most congested prisons.
Signe Rotberga, UNODC Regional Coordinator for Southern Africa and Steinar Hagen, the Royal Norwegian Ambassador to Malawi, whose embassy provided money to procure the beds, jointly presented the beds and soil rippers to Malawi’s Minister of Homeland Security, Mr. Nicholas Dausi, here on Thursday.
Rotberga stressed that donating beds was a short term solution to mitigate the impact of overcrowding. This would be followed by improvement of ventilation, access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
She said other long-term interventions would include simplifying and speeding up the criminal justice process, improving access to legal aid, taking measures to reduce pre-trial detention and introducing the use of alternatives to imprisonment. Support would be rendered, also, to revising the legislative framework, which may include decriminalization of certain offences, reduction of sentence lengths and increasing the age of criminal responsibility.
This year UNODC trained almost 200 magistrates from the Southern, Eastern, Central and Northern regions of Malawi to increase awareness on alternative sentencing and strengthen their professional capacity to apply non- custodial measures to deserving persons.
Additionally, UNODC has provided technical assistance revise Malawi’s Prison Act and Sentencing Guidelines. The new Prison Act would allow the use of parole and community work. UNODC is urging Malawi to adopt it as soon as possible.
The beds will benefit inmates at Maula Prison, one of the harshest and most overcrowded prisons in the country. Congestion is linked to adverse health outcomes. Experts agree that it creates an environment for disease-causing organisms to thrive.
Target 3.3 of Sustainable Development Goal Number 3 calls on member states to by the year 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases while combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases.
Most prisons in Malawi receive very little funding. This makes it difficult for them to adequately meet prisoners’ nutrition, fresh air and other needs. Malawi prisons are either heavily or lightly congested. This calls for improvement in the classification of prisoners and other measures.
Although prisoners bear the brunt of overcrowding and poor nutrition, there are many players and factors within the criminal justice system that contribute to overcrowding. One of them is knee-jerk use of custodial sentences, sometimes with scant or no regard at all to the age of offenders or the nature of their crimes.
Hagen also expressed concern over overcrowding in the approximately 30 Malawi prisons.
“The holding capacity of Malawi’s prison system is an estimated 6,220 individuals. With a current population of about 14,200 inmates held across its various institutions with varying population distribution, the Malawi prison system is operating at over double its designed holding capacity,” he said.
He said the dignity of inmates should be upheld at all costs.
“Prisoners are human beings like all of us. They have the same rights as all other persons as far as the law can allow. They have lost their liberty whilst in the prison, but they should not be deprived of their human dignity or their right to equality before the law. Prisoners should not be subject to extra punishment while in prison in addition to their sentencing,” Hagen said.
Describing the situation in Malawi prisons as “worrying”, Hagen called for alignment of Malawi’s national laws and practices with international human rights standards and principles such as the Nelson Mandela Rules.
“To effect sustainable change, development assistance efforts must help Malawi build capacities for fundamental criminal justice reform,” he said.
Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights exhorts member states to ensure that all people deprived of their liberty be treated humanely.
“It is below human dignity to sleep in cold shacks without a mattress or a blanket, to have limited shelter from cold or heat, to eat poor food, not to be able to cook when it rains and to lack proper sanitation,” he said.
With a current prison population throughout the country, the Malawi Prison Service would require 3 000 triple deck bunk beds to provide all its inmates decent sleeping space, according to Henry Ndindi, a medical doctor and Country Coordinator for UNODC in Malawi. An assessment done by UNODC established that even if they were to be procured, 3000 bunk beds would not fit into the existing prison space.
Accordingly, UNODC advocates for reducing the prison population. To achieve this, UNODC is creating awareness among stakeholders within the criminal justice system on the benefits of alternative sentencing.
Yet another challenge affecting the MPS is providing ablution facilities: toilets, showers, hand washing taps and basins in the correct ratio. The toilet prison ratio is 1 toilet to 25 prisoners, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In Malawi, UNODC has established that while some prisons may have the appropriate toilet to prisoner ratio, the quality of the toilets leaves a lot to be desired.
In some prisons, there are still not enough toilets and showers due to congestion. The current UNODC Project in Malawi is, therefore, focusing on the most affected prisons to improve the prisoner toilet ratio and introduce water points so that prisoners can wash their hands and drink water.
In many prisons, inmates still use the bucket system to relieve themselves at night which does not comply with internationally agreed upon sanitary conditions. Changing this situation would involve renovating the prisons. With respect to ventilation, some cells are seriously compromised while the standards of wash facilities are low in terms of quantity and quality.
UNODC and the Royal Norwegian Embassy donated, also, three soil ripping machines for use in crop production at three prisons: Kasungu, Zomba and Chitedze.
Chief Commissioner Wandika Phiri, the Commissioner General of the Malawi Prison Service, welcomed to the donation.
“These bunk beds will improve prisoners’ accommodation while not suffocating the already limited space. The soil rippers will improve crop production. Our farm land is overused and has since lost its fertility,” she said.
Phiri thanked UNODC for supporting MPS projects related to health, agriculture and infrastructure development. Minister Dausi acknowledged that overcrowding was a challenge in Malawi prisons but expressed optimism that the many magistrates that UNODC has trained in alternative sentencing would help resolve the problem.