Human rights campaigners in Malawi are calling on the government to urgently release people from its notoriously overcrowded prisons as cases of Covid-19 are rising among both staff and inmates.
Currently, 86 inmates and 21 members of staff have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the Malawi prison authority’s spokesperson, Chimwemwe Shaba. There are 71 cases in one prison in Blantyre alone.
However, campaigners believe the true numbers are likely to be higher.
Seven organisations have written to the government to request the decongestion of prisons, noting that a space which is supposed to accommodate 5,000 prisoners is currently holding 14,000.
Victor Mhango, executive director for the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance, said: “Covid-19 is a big problem in our prisons. The figures that are coming from there are from a small sample that has been tested. Had they tested each and every prisoner, you could be surprised. The situation is just huge.”
In the letter to the president, Mhango suggested the president consider a number of factors. “We are talking of terminally ill prisoners. We have so many prisoners with TB [tuberculosis]. We have been hearing from health experts that if this virus can is contracted by someone with certain diseases, the possibility of someone dying is very high. We are also taking of old age, we have some people are 65, 70, 80 years old who are in prison.”
Currently, Malawi has registered 4,361 Covid-19 cases with 128 deaths and 2,047 recoveries, according to the health ministry. But many people believe this number is an underestimate due to low testing capacity.
Shaba said there had been ongoing discussions between the authorities concerning the situation and he believes some of the prisoners could be pardoned. “One of the challenges is an obvious fact that our prisons are congested and the virus can easily spread. The second challenge is the lack of testing kits since we don’t have adequate kits to intensify both random and mass testing.”
The new president of Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, has acknowledged that Covid-19 is a serious challenge, pointing out that the pandemic could affect his ability to keep his election promises in the short term.
Speaking to the Guardian, the minister of homeland security, Richard Chimwendo Banda , acknowledged that the situation in the prisons is deteriorating because of overcrowding. “It pleased the president to form a special committee to look into the matter. We have met three times and our last meeting was yesterday and the recommendation for the actual pardoning has now been forwarded to [to the president] today and we should be able to hear what comes out of there.”
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