THE UN’s Human Development Index ranks Malawi at 170 out of 187 countries, making it one of the poorest places on earth.
I visit the country’s prisons at the invitation of Irish Rule of Law International (IRLI), an Irish NGO working within the Malawian justice system.
While the theory is that democracy cannot function without an adequate legal and justice system, in the face of a starving population and a spreading HIV/AIDS epidemic, this is not a priority for Malawi. Corruption in the system is common; crime rates are high – and the prisons are overflowing.
A childhood behind bars
Kachere is Lilongwe’s juvenile prison. I’m greeted at the door by a young prison officer, dressed in khaki greens and a wide, warm smile. Built for 80 inmates, at the time of my visit the prison is home to 244 prisoners. Food shortages are common. It is often the case that inmates receive only basic rations of maize for several days at a time due to food shortages. A tarp donated through Irish funds provides some shelter from the blistering sun.
“This country thinks I’m trash,” laments one former inmate I met for lunch. He was imprisoned for stealing a motorcycle. Now 24 and a mechanic, he has the boyish vulnerability of a 14 year old.
For juveniles at risk of delinquency, or who have come in conflict with the law, there are few alternatives to custodial sentences. IRLI supports a juvenile diversion program known as Mwai Wasinthika. A 12-week life skills program, Mwai Wasinthika instills the importance of accountability, respect and community service.
“Mwai Wosinthika changed my life,” the former inmate says, sipping Coke from an old-fashioned bottle. Today he is a facilitator for the Mwai Wosinthika programe and supports other young people to make better life choices.
Music is a lifeline in Kachere. As I tour the cells, a young man offers me his headphones. Another young inmate secured a record deal based on some of the music he wrote while in prison. Occasionally, the ‘Music Crossroads’ programme visits Kachere and a youth worker plays the guitar and leads the boys through song and dance.
IRLI also works with adult prisoners, including those housed at Maula, Lilongwe’s largest prison. Built for 800, it’s currently home to 2,500 prisoners. We visit at lunchtime, as thousands of men queue ravenously to be served from a large pot of porridge-like meal called nsima. Each prisoner has a different-sized container, which determines the amount of food they receive. Prisoners routinely receive only one meal a day.
Legally, the accused may be held for 30-90 days without conviction, depending on the seriousness of the alleged offence. It’s not uncommon for remandees to be held illegally for many months, or even years.
To alleviate over-crowding and allow speedier access to justice, IRLI works with the Lilongwe Legal Aid Department and the Paralegal Advisory Services Institute (PASI) to support a series of ‘camp courts’ (mobile courts which take place within the prison grounds ).
On the day I visit, ten young men are up for bail. They receive a brief training in legal literacy from IRLI in conjunction with Paralegal Advisory Service Institute (PASI), practice their testimony using role play and will represent themselves in front of the judge. Though often illiterate and underfed, they’re eager to learn.
Of today’s bunch, five were granted immediate bail, three got hearing dates and two were left in legal limbo because their court files had been lost.
There are hopeful stories, too. I met a man who completed his education in prison, and was accepted into university. He’s serving eight years for burglary, after (he alleges) unknowingly working on a stolen vehicle that was brought into his garage. He hopes to study agricultural science when he’s released in 2015.
Women in prison
Maula is also home to about fifty female prisoners, housed in a dorm-like room. It smells like cabbage cooking over charcoal. While the men’s prison feels vaguely like a rowdy football stadium, the women’s section is quiet and calm. I spot a Guinness t-shirt emblazoned with a large green shamrock as I wander through the yard. “Warning: May Cause Irish Accent,” it reads.
I meet a 27-year old woman, on remand for homicide. Her hair is tightly woven into zig-zag braids. Her stoicism dissolves when she mentions her 7-year-old daughter. Her family’s cell phone numbers are written carefully in a religious book, in the hope that they can someday post bail for her. Still on remand, Mary potentially faces a long prison sentence if convicted.
As a former British colony with a common law system, Malawi’s legal system is similar to Ireland’s and the expertise of Irish legal professionals is invaluable within the radically under-resourced and inefficient justice system.
The 2010 Child Care Protection and Justice Act formally defines juvenile detention as a last resort, though progress on alternatives to custodial sentences has been slow. In the meantime, Irish Rule of Law continues to focus on building capacity among their Malawian colleagues, working with legal professionals, police and the judiciary.
This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.
Further photographs from the trip can be viewed here.