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Malawi. Chaplaincy in prisons where justice is in short supply

Being a chaplain in one of the most over-crowded prison in Malawi. Giving dignity, hope and friendship to the prisoners. He recounts his experience for us.

“When I passed through the gates of the prison on the outskirts of Blantyre, I found myself entering another world. All the young offenders dressed in the standard white prison uniform and, with faces either expressionless or showing deep sadness, walked dejectedly from one wall to the other and back again. Some held their heads down as if searching for something they might have dropped, others watched the guards carefully, still others conversed in whispers for fear of being overheard. My gaze rested on one group of offenders who, equipped with their mess tins, were queueing for their daily food ration”.

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This is how Fr. Tiziano Laurenti, an Italian Comboni Missionary with more than 35 years’ service in Malawi, tells of his first visit to the prison of Chichiri (one of the seven prisons in the south of Malawi to which he has recently been appointed chaplain).

Heads on their knees

In Malawi there are 20 prisons of one kind or another with an estimated prison population of around 13 thousand detainees. The main problem is over-crowding. “The prisons are over-crowded,” says Fr. Tiziano, “and the cells are in effect big dormitories where not everyone has the good fortune of a place on the floor to sleep. Many sleep sitting on the floor with their heads on their knees, squashed one against another thus ensuring a ready breeding ground for infections such as tuberculosis”.

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The prisons in general contain many minors even though officially there are three prisons assigned especially for young offenders – Mikuyu, Bvumbwe, and Kachere. “Speaking with the prisoners,” Fr. Tiziano continues, “I am convinced that many of these boys could be returned to their homes to be looked after by their families. It seems that magistrates judge these young men much too superficially. In fact there is a significant number of cases where innocent youths have been put in prison because the police have been unable to arrest a brother or neighbour for the offence committed”.
According to the chaplain no distinctions are made between first-time and repeat offenders. “Those who are awaiting trial and those already carrying out their sentences,” Fr. Tiziano insists, “are put together. The only difference is that the former cannot leave their cells unless the police come to take them out, while the latter are able to take part in all the activities of normal prison life”.
Malawi has just one maximum security prison, Zomba, which was built by the British in colonial times. There are specific sections there for women, for those condemned to death, for lifers, career criminals, the criminally insane, those awaiting trial and for first-time offenders. The prison population tops 3,000 individuals. There are 30 people on death row, many of whom have not yet been able to submit an appeal to Malawi’s Supreme Court. It is many years now that there has been no execution in Malawi. The death penalty remains part of Malawi’s penal code and in certain cases judges impose it in the knowledge that in all likelihood it will never be carried out.

Always the same question

Moving from one prison to another Fr. Tiziano always asks himself the same question: does justice really exist here? “I have the impression,” he confides, “that in Malawi justice for the poor means a prison sentence while the rich, as soon as they get to prison, pay large sums of money and obtain a release under caution. Once in prison a person loses all respect and is barely considered a human being. Everything is done to humiliate prisoners and to cut away any self-esteem that they might have. Often, and this is against regulations, prisoners are assigned to prisons far away from their families and thus cannot receive visits since their loved ones are too poor to be able to afford the journey to come to visit them. Progressively prisoners get forgotten by everyone”.

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The chaplain goes on to note that the judicial system in Malawi is slow, corrupt and without the resources it needs. “Preliminary enquiries,” he muses, “leave a lot to be desired. Recognised lawyers are few, with poor preparation and unregulated fees; as a result, with the exception of cases of homicide, ordinary people go to court undefended. In homicide cases lawyers see their clients just before they go into the court room. Preliminary meetings between the accused and his lawyer are dropped because of a lack of funds. Homicide cases are only tabled once the government has received sufficient subsidies to pay the lawyers, judges and secretaries and to cover the costs of their transfers to the place where the crime was committed. Waiting times for hearings can last 10 years. In Chichiri Prison today there is a woman who was arrested on 14 September 2004 in connection with an unlawful killing. It is clear that this woman is not the guilty party herself but, or so it appears, she knows who is. The other two people accused with her, her uncle and her husband, were released from prison years ago with a caution. A hearing actually took place 4 years ago but the sentence has still not been delivered. Ten years and still no conclusion”.

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Another problem is that documents often go missing. “At the High Court in Blantyre – alleges Fr. Laurenti – the court’s records are made inaccessible with the result that people cannot then request an appeal because the documents required cannot be produced. A whole year has gone by since I began requesting the court records of a hearing that sentenced three sisters to life imprisonment.”

Know how to listen

The presence of Fr. Tiziano, along with a lay-man and a nun, is an attempt to open up the possibility of establishing a friendship with those in prison, spending time with them, listening to their problems and looking for solutions. “Where possible,” adds the chaplain, “we establish contact with the prisoner’s family who often do not know where their family member is or how to trace him. We also offer the chance of rehabilitation after release at the end of a sentence”.
“During time spent inside we offer prisoners the chance to study at both the primary and secondary levels of the Malawian education system. This is a project particularly close to our hearts in the young offenders’ units. For women prisoners we offer promotional activities which are best carried out in groups”.

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“In our prisons there are significant problems and challenges on the health and sanitation front. There are prisoners who are ill especially those suffering from TB or HIV/AIDS. We minister to these and try to help by augmenting their meagre daily food ration by providing regular protein-rich supplements. In our service as chaplains the faith aspect is pivotal. For Catholics, and indeed for anyone who wishes to pray with us, we offer the comfort of faith in God and through common prayer we establish a very real link with the community of the faithful outside the prison walls. The greatest gift that can be made to a prisoner here,” concludes Fr. Tiziano, “is a bar of soap so that he can then wash himself and wash his prison uniform too. The government seems to have forgotten that these prisoners are also human beings whose dignity should be respected no matter what they might be guilty of. When someone’s term in prison comes to an end, we do our best – should it be needed – to ensure that the ex-prisoner has a decent pair of trousers and a shirt to wear and the full bus fare home to his village and family – a chance to make a new start with some degree of dignity”.

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