SALC’s Prisons Project

September 2, 2009

JOAO SILVA for The New York Times

JOAO SILVA for The New York Times

At present SALC is supporting initiatives aimed at improving prisoners’ rights and prison conditions in Malawi. As you’ll know from our blog, Malawi’s Constitutional Court recently handed down the Evance Moyo judgement, pertaining to juvenile prisoners’ rights. Chichiri Prison in Blantyre is where Evance was imprisoned and is representative of the conditions about which we’re concerned – countless detainees are kept for years without any prospect of trial and the health and wellbeing of prisoners is seriously endangered. Here, Richard Brigden, SALC’s consultant in Malawi, describes those conditions from close-up.

Chichiri Prison in Blantyre is the second biggest prison in Malawi, at present 1800 inmates are held there, of that number about 450 of those are remandees.

It should be noted that many of the appalling conditions at the prison are resource driven; the prison management has a genuine desire to alleviate many of the problems that are set out below. Very often they face opposition from an intransigent central government.

Take for instance the lack of medical treatment, current records show that of the 1800 persons held in Chichiri prison only 47 are receiving treatment for tuberculosis. Given that the prison is horribly overcrowded it provides a perfect breeding ground for TB; there are clearly a large number of inmates currently suffering from TB but who receive no treatment. There is also a very limited retroviral program which dispenses drugs to the 110 inmates who are diagnosed with HIV. Given that sexual violence within the prison is evident if not endemic and that the HIV prevalence rate in the prison falls well below the national average (between 15-20%) it would not be fancifully to expect the real number of those suffering HIV to be four times this number.

The prison currently has one full time Medical Assistant, Mr X, whose commitment and endeavour must be commended, but he only has 2 years of medical training and one years experience working in a rural district hospital. He readily accepts that he is unable to adequately deal with many of the inmates who have complaints that are out of the ordinary. On top of the problem of testing and diagnosing TB and HIV, the Medical Assistant complains that he is given a supply of medicine at the start of every month and that this supply is very often finished by the middle of the month. He then has to wait for two weeks until he is given fresh supplies.

Despite a desire to provide medical treatment to the inmates, the current facilities fall well below the required international standards. With this in mind, SALC is setting up a program that will see consultant Doctors from Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), Blantyre attending a regular in-patient-clinic at the prison. They will not only assist with the more complex medical problems but also help by bringing surplus medicines from QECH to the prison.

Food intake and the lack thereof is also a real problem. Intake varies from prisoner to prisoner. If their families live nearby they are often bought food by their relatives. If not the prisoners must survive on the one proper meal per day (consisting of maize meal and beans) that the prison aims to provide. The Officer in Charge of the prison, Mr Chitete is explicit over the fact that at present the funding from the Ministry of Justice does not even allow him to meet the intended aim of providing one meal per day. In my experience it is not unusual for prisoners to go 3-4 days without being provided with food. Often this is due to a lack of firewood with which to cook the food rather than a lack of food itself. Cooking food with firewood in poorly ventilated areas of course raises additional health implications. It should be noted that despite the abysmal food supply it has been better this year than it was in 2008.

One of the main problems that greatly diminishes the standard of living within the prison is the overcrowding. It may sound unnecessarily melodramatic but the prisoners’ sleep 180 in a room that is little more than 20m by 15m; consequently they have little or no chance of ever sleeping properly. They are unable to turn over in their sleep at will and instead have designated points in the night (signalled by a whistle) when they can turn over in unison. Clinical psychologists, funded by SALC have assessed a number of remandees and have noted that sleep deprivation is an important contributory factor to the mental health problems exhibited by most of the long term remandees.

One could easily point to an almost never ending litany of breaches of prisoner rights as protected under Malawian or International law, from the lack of clothing, to the fact that remandees are routinely incarcerated with convicted criminals. The above examples merely represent the most egregious and obvious failings of the prison service. There is however one more thing which neatly highlights the problem that the Chichiri Prison Management has in maintaining an acceptable standard of detention. Namely that at present there is no procedure for getting rid of the rubbish that is generated within the prison. This means that one wing of the prison now houses a landfill site, originally dug to a depth of 3 metres (20 x 20 metres wide) the rubbish is now overflowing to a height of about one metre. The ministry of justice will not provide funds to move the rubbish and attempts by the management to get the Blantyre City Assembly to remove the rubbish have fallen on deaf ears. Needless to say this problem could be easily rectified and yet continues to make Chichiri an even more unpleasant place to live and undoubtedly heightens the health risk for the prisoners and the prison staff.


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