On 14 July 2020, the Malawi Prison Service registered its first COVID-19 case at Mzimba Prison through a prisoner. On the same day, an inmate also tested positive for the virus at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre.
Each of the two cases have been isolated, as have been prisoners and warders who were contacts.
In light of the development Civil Society Organisations have appealed to President Lazarus Chakwera to immediately exercise his wide powers under section 89(2) of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi to pardon or commute the sentences of the terminally ill, elderly, persons with TB, those who have served a substantial part of their sentences and those who are serving time for minor offences.
The organisations have also appealed to the Minister of Homeland and Security Richard Chimwendo Banda to exercise his powers under section 110 of the Prison Act to release some prisoners serving life sentences, on account of old age or chronic disease.
The consortium comprises Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance, Paralegal Advisory Service Institute, Southern Africa Litigation Centre, Youth Watch Society, Irish Rule of Law, Child Rights Advocacy and Paralegal Aid Centre,
In a statement the consortium said considering the congestion in the prisons, only isolating those who were directly in contact with the two cases does not eliminate the high risk of further infections in the two prisons.
CHREA Executive Director Victor Mhango said: “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 requires the State to urgently take concrete steps to drastically reduce congestion in prisons.
Mhango said they further call on the government to ensure that the designated isolation centres are provided with all necessary PPEs.
“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. The government should ensure that detainees who are particularly vulnerable, including older persons, persons with co-morbidities, and women with children, are immediately released,” he said.
They have since commended the Malawi Prison Service for designating four isolation centres in each region in the country for prison inmates.
These centres are Zomba Prison (female section), Maula Prison (female section), Mzimba Prison (female section) and Thyolo Prison.
It also commended the Malawi Prison Service for suspending admission into all the prisons of any remandees as a measure of reducing congestions in prisons.
The consortium has appealed to the judicially to support the initiative by the Malawi Prison Service and ensure that no person is remanded into prison unless the interests of justice so requires and unless there are no other alternative means of dealing with the person.