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7 June 2024
The Nation
By Zororai Nkomo

Human rights defenders have raised concern over the deplorable and incessant food insecurity in Malawi prisons, which they say is a flagrant violation of the constitution and other international human rights instruments.

While all human beings have a right to access adequate food for their survival and health, the situation of prisoners is a startling indictment of Malawi’s constitutional protection of human rights.

The 2023 Malawi Human Rights report revealed that prison conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, inadequate food and potable water, and unsanitary conditions.

Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) Executive Director, Anneke Meerkotter said frequent food shortages in Malawi’s prisons is now a cause of concern which require urgent intervention.

‘Frequent food shortages are a serious concern which should be addressed through adequate budgeting and early identification of shortages and stock-outs. The current prison diet contributes to malnutrition’ said Meerkotter

Meerkotter said the situation has worsened the health conditions of many ill prisoners, especially tuberculosis patients.

‘For prisoners who are ill, the infrequent meals affect their treatment outcomes. The prisoners noted that TB medication increases their appetite, but since they only eat a meal once a day or sometimes once in many days, they avoid taking medication to lessen their hunger and side effects from the medication. This leads to a vicious cycle where prisoners who are malnourished and do not receive a balanced diet struggle to recover from illness’ Meerkotter said.

Prisoners are served only one monotonous meal a day which results in prisoners suffering from malnutrition.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela once said a nation will not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but by how it treats its lowest citizens.

The 2022, Malawi Inspectorate prison report revealed the dire nutrition situation in most of the country’s prisons.

‘The inspection exercise established that there are enormous challenges as far as feeding of prisoners is concerned. In February 2022, almost all prisons visited expressed a lack of access to the Department’s approved budget funds due to IFMIS upgrading. This situation continued to deteriorate rapidly throughout the year’ reads the report’ reads the report.

The report further noted that prisons were failing to meet the well-known Nelson Mandela Rules which provided that every prisoner shall be provided with wholesome quality and well prepared and served food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength by the prison administration at the usual feeding hours.

In 2007, the Constitutional Court of Malawi, in the case of Gable Masangano ordered prison administrations to serve prisoners two hot meals per day. The court further held that prisoners’ diets should be diversified within the permissible options as prescribed in the regulations contained in the Prison Act.

Prominent Malawi Human Rights Lawyer, Chikondi Chijozi said frequent and systematic food shortage should be addressed through the national budget.

‘The frequent shortages of food and water in prisons point to systemic challenges that must be dealt with through proper budgeting and finalization of the long overdue Prisons Bill and revision of Prison Regulations and Standing Orders’

Chijozi added that courts should consider alternative non-custodial sentences to decongest prisons.

‘Our courts are sending more people to prisons and do not consider alternative sentencing. There is over reliance on custodial sentences than looking at alternative sentences. People are sentenced and convicted for even petty offences’ said Chijozi.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners provides that every prisoner shall be entitled to nutritional, health and well prepared diet.

Failure by authorities to provide an adequate and well balanced diet for prisoners is not only a violation of the Malawi constitution but also other international human rights instruments that protect the lives and welfare of prisoners.

Prisoners’ reliance on food provided by the State is often overlooked in decision-making, such as when prisons were closed for visitors during the Covid-19 pandemic without making extra provisions for food for prisoners.

Centre for Investigative Journalism revealed that a study by four University academics in 2017 showed that 5% of persons in detention are food insecure, of which 89% are severely food insecure. 81% of persons in detention did not receive meals from outside the prison and were reliant on the food provided by the State.