By Philippa Croome
I don’t know what I expected from my visit to a Malawian prison. Stern and menacing guards, perhaps, brandishing batons and demanding my credentials. Or having the contents of my bag dumped out and searched, my notebook read and confiscated. Or finding prison conditions so shocking they would continue to haunt me long after I’d gone.
I certainly did not expect smiling and welcoming faces. Or that my companion, George Thindwa, director of the Malawian NGO Association for Secular Humanism (ASH), would have running jokes yelled at him from familiar prison guards and staff. Or that the prisoners we spoke to would be able to laugh about the injustices that have seen them wrongfully convicted.
Sixty-nine-year-old Margaret Jackson shakes her head and chuckles as she tells us of the accusations made by children in her village—that she had flown them to distant lands during the night in order to teach them witchcraft. She and her sister are now both serving three-year sentences, and yet Jackson says the treatment from her fellow villagers for being a suspected witch was worse than jail.
“I don’t know why the village hated us, I think they had something in their hearts against us,” she says.
What began as harmless rumours became threatening with accusations. Jackson says it reached the point where she felt she might be attacked at any time.
“We feared for our lives, the way the community looked at us,” she says. “At the village it was very tough, it is better to be here.”
It was the biggest surprise of all, and shows just how low the quality of life is for the Malawians accused of witchcraft.
The country’s prisons leave a lot to be desired. Despite a capacity of 800, Maula prison in the capital of Lilongwe is home to 2,217 inmates, according to a 2009 report from the Malawi Inspectorate of Prisons. There are a total of 11,202 prisoners in Malawi, and yet the holding capacity of prisons stands at a mere 5,530.
The report says inmates can expect one meal a day of nsima (maize porridge) and beans. The inspectorate—mandated in Malawi’s constitution—has taken complaints of physical abuse from police officers at a number of prisons including Maula. Only last year, police reportedly defended the practice of torture on the account of a lack of resources. More than half of HIV-infected prisoners are not receiving anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs) and cells are poorly ventilated havens for disease that sleep people piled up like matches.
“The same problem is very common across prisons,” says Thindwa. “The conditions are tough.”
Incidentally, he knows Maula prison all too well. He was held there for two years without charge during former president Kamuzu Banda’s regime, he believes for publicly disagreeing with the government.
Thindwa says prisons have made “small moves”—at Maula for instance, the women’s cell has been rebuilt and inmates are now given porridge in the mornings.
But human rights activist and lawyer Justin Dzonzi says even that is more than he would have expected.
“It’s just not a government priority,” he says with a shrug. “And I wouldn’t blame them.”
With the average Malawian living in “semi-prison conditions” already, he says the quality of life for the country’s free citizens will naturally come first.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s experience at Maula has never made her feel unsafe. Failed by her village, its headman and the courts, Jackson found solace in prison, free from judgment behind its walls.
But she acknowledges that even in prison her future is bleak. She tells us that she doesn’t expect to see the end of her sentence.
“Three years is too long,” she says, clutching a new pair of shoes and bag of sugar from Thindwa to her chest with fingers curled from arthritis.
We shake hands through the links of fence as inmates sitting in the shade of the dozen or so barracks littered across the wire-fenced compound look on. Visitors stand separated from the inmates by not one but two fences, speaking loudly over each other to be heard.
I walk away with Jackson’s trademark Malawian resilience running through my head, wondering what else prison is preferable to.