CIVIL SOCIETY CALLS FOR THE URGENT DECONGESTION OF PRISONS AFTER COVID-19 CASES REGISTERED IN CHICHIRI AND MZIMBA PRISONS

Salc : Staff Writer

We the undersigned organizations reiterate our call for the immediate decongestion of prisons following two confirmed cases of COVID 19 in Mzimba and Chichiri Prison.

On 14 July 2020, the Malawi Prison Service registered its first case of COVID-19 at Mzimba Prison where a prison officer tested positive for COVID-19. On the same day, an inmate also tested positive for COVID-19 at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre. The two cases have been isolated, including those prisoners who had been in contact with the prison officer. Considering the severe overcrowding of Malawi’s prisons, isolating those who were directly in contact with the two cases is a difficult task and does not eliminate the high risk of further infections in the two prisons. Due to shortage of test kits in the country, hospitals are also unable to provide mass testing for all prisoners in the two prisons. This situation is extremely dangerous requires the State to urgently take concrete steps to drastically reduce congestion in prisons and take action to prevent the spread of the virus within these prisons.

We commend the Malawi Prison Service for designating four isolation centres in each region in the country for new prison remandees. These centres are Zomba Prison (female section), Maula Prison (female section), Mzimba Prison (female section) and Thyolo Prison; this should be operationalized as soon possible.  We note with concern however, the recent transfer of all female prisoners from Maula to Mzuzu and urge the Malawi Prison Service to ensure that the women are provided with adequate food and basic necessities in light of the fact that their families will struggle to visit them there.   Notwithstanding these developments, there is still a lack of isolation rooms for suspected and confirmed cases within the prisons. We call on the government to support the Malawi Prison Service in establishing isolation rooms in each prison, in order to facilitate the isolation of any suspected or confirmed cases. All isolation facilities should be well equipped with infection, prevent and control (IPC) materials as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) as per national guidelines.

We further appeal to the government to ensure that enough test kits are immediately made available to allow for mass screening of all prisoners in the affected prisons.

We commend the Malawi Prison Service for suspending admission of new remandees to all prisons and detaining all new remandees in the four designated the isolations centres. We appeal to the Judiciary and the Malawi Police Service to support the initiative by the Malawi Prison Service and ensure that no person is remanded into custody unless the interests of justice so requires, as there are no other alternative means of dealing with the person.

The government should ensure that detainees who are particularly vulnerable, including older persons, persons with co-morbidities, pregnant women and women with children, are immediately released.

We appeal to President Dr. Lazarus Chakwera to immediately exercise his wide powers under section 89(2) of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi to pardon or remit the sentences of all  persons, regardless of the offence for which they are convicted, who: are terminally ill, older, suffering from TB, as well as persons who have served a substantial part of their sentences and those who are serving time for minor offences.

We also appeal to the Government to ensure any process for release is completely transparent. Whilst the previous Government stated 1,800 people were pardoned, the names on the pardon list overlapped with many of those released through other decongestion measures. In sum (excluding the pardons as the overlap with the other measures has not yet been ascertained), approximately 1,712 persons have been released through the Prison Inspectorate visit and the camp courts. This is comparatively lower than other countries in the Southern African Region.

We again appeal to the Minister of Homeland and Security to exercise his powers under section 110 of the Prison Act to release some prisoners serving life sentences on licence, on account of old age or chronic disease.

Signed by:

  1. Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance,
  2. Paralegal Advisory Service Institute
  3. Southern Africa Litigation Centre
  4. Youth Watch Society
  5. Irish Rule of Law International
  6. Child Rights Advocacy and Paralegal Aid Centre
  7. REPRIEVE