Overcrowding in the country’s prisons has reduced from 260 percent to 186 percent through the European Union’s (EU) Chilungamo Justice and Accountability Programme.
An update from the EU in Malawi shows that 3 903 prisoners have been released from the country’s 29 prisons since the programme was launched in July 2018.
Malawi Prison Service spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba yesterday confirmed the development, saying the programme has helped ease congestion in the country’s prisons.
He said: “It is a fact that our prisons are congested. The number of inmates doesn’t tally with the recommended holding capacity.
“So, this project has helped create breathing space and ease the burden of financial challenges we face in looking after the inmates, especially considering the Covid-19 effects.”
According to the EU update, about 1 729 prisoners were released at the peak of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Reacting to the statistics yesterday, Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango described the progress on decongesting prisons as commendable.
He said: “The campaign for decongesting prisons is done by several organisations, including Chreaa, and we are happy to see it is producing results.
“However, despite recording such great numbers of released prisoners, it is worrying that overcrowding remains a big problem in our prisons mainly because [although] many are being released, a lot more are also being admitted into the prisons.”
Mhango said most convicts are committed to prisons for petty offences that can be dealt with through other modes of punishment other than imprisonment.
In a separate interview, governance expert Undule Mwakasungula said decongesting prisons will also enable the Malawi Prison Service to focus on improving conditions of inmates.
He said: “Our criminal justice system should also consider community service .” for minor offenders with
the aim of reforming and rehabilitating offenders. Communi ty ser v i ce also reduces stigma and discrimination against offenders as society often feels prisoners are bad citizens
In March last year, some civil society organisations ( CSOs ) called on government to release at least 7 000 prisoners as an urgent preventive measure against the Covid-19 pandemic among inmates.
The CSOs were Paralegal Advisory Service, the Southern African Litigation Centre, Youth Watch Society, Universal Health Coverage Coalition and Chreaa.
The Chilungamo Justice and Accountability Programme, among others, seeks to improve institutional capacities and coordination mechanisms of oversight institutions and to create a fair and effective legal environment and respect for human rights.
I t a l s o a i m s t o enhance civic education, awareness and capacity building for citizens to demand transparency and accountability.
The programme further addresses the country’s core governance challenges of lack of transparency and accountability among duty-bearers and limited access to justice for vulnerable groups.
Through the initiative, 32 839 victims of gender-based violence (GBV) have also been supported and four out of 10 victim support units (VSUs) have been rehabilitated during the same period.
In his remarks at the launch, then EU Ambassador to Malawi Marchel Gerrmann said the project, which had already made strides at the time, facilitated the release of 1 235 inmates from the country’s prisons through camp courts, review and analysis of court orders.
According to The Nation . records, between April and December 31 2020, about 2 678 inmates were pardoned as 1 392 were released in April courtesy of the EU’s Chilungamo Justice and Accountability Programme, while President Lazarus Chakwera pardoned 499 prisoners in August last year following Covid-19 concerns before pardoning an additional 787 inmates in December as part of the New Year and Christmas celebrations
As part of this year’s Easter celebrations, Chakwera also pardoned 52 more prisoners, specifically those charged with minor offences and those that had demonstrated good behavioural reform.
Last month, Shaba told The Nation that there are over 12 000 prisoners in the country’s prisons against a design capacity of 8 000.
Various stakeholders have blamed the prison decongestion on an archaic Prisons Act that does not provide room for decongestion.
The Prisons Act was enacted on April 23 1956 to provide for the establishment of prisons within Malawi and a Prison Service, among others