By: Kylie Yanes
There are currently 30 prisons in the country of Malawi, Southeastern Africa. The mission of the Malawi Prisons Service is to contribute to public security and safety through the rehabilitation, reformation, development, and community integration of offenders. Although this mission is admirable, it can be difficult to implement with the resources that the prisons have available to them.
In Malawian prisons, there is a vast amount of malnutrition and communicable diseases. Prisoners in these outworn facilities are sleeping on the floor and, according to The Guardian, there have been countless cases of inmates developing sores, scabies, rashes, and other physical ailments. Inmates are forced to sleep back-to-back with other inmates and live mostly without any blankets or even soap, as the prisons are drastically over capacity. Specifically, in the Maula prison, there is one toilet for every 120 people, one tap for every 900 people, and one shower for every 180 people. Malawian prisons are estimated to exceed their capacity by over 200%, and most are riddled with HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis. Since the prison budget is so small, these prisoners are also only eating once a day and often only Nsima – a meal that is made up of boiled corn flour. Around seven million dollars is needed to fund feeding the inmates, and in 2016 only $2500 was received. It is predicted that 14% of all prisoners are severely malnourished. Unfortunately, because of these combined factors, the annual death rate for prisoners in Malawi is approximately 20-30 people.
Another concern is that many court documents are handwritten and stowed away in one of various file cabinets, and the absence of electronic resources is consequently aiding unjust practices. The overcrowding is partially caused by a lack of resources to consistently track inmates’ release time, with many files being lost or misplaced — leaving numerous inmates serving time for longer than their intended sentence. Another issue Malawi faces is the lack of legal representation available for these inmates. There are estimated to be under 30 legal aid attorneys and under 10 prosecutors in the entire country, therefore, most inmates are having to represent themselves.
I had the opportunity to travel to Malawi this summer with my church and serve on the Justice team. With a Malawian Pastor, Paralegal, Law Student, and a few college students, we were able to go into the prisons and see these Malawian prisons first-hand. We brought with us an American attorney who has served alongside these Malawian change-makers for years giving their time and resources. Although there are many selfless advocates aiding in this process, these efforts only go so far without the necessary proportional legal counsel. As it was my first time in Malawi, I was shocked first by the lack of security in the prisons— most without any sort of gate and unarmed guards. There seemed to be a mutual trust between the inmates and the prison guards. The prison officials were very accommodating to our justice efforts and always warmly welcomed us when we visited. It was apparent that the prison officials do the best they can to manage the overpopulated prisons with very limited budgets. While we were at the prison, we went through files with the intent of searching for inmates who met certain criteria to be released, conducted court hearings, and led worship with the inmates. We also were able to meet with them and hear their stories, learning more about their culture and background.
Each time I came into contact with one of the inmates the experience was nothing short of pleasant. They sat quietly and listened intently to whoever was speaking with them. They were eager to elaborate on their plans to farm or take care of their families after they were released. They seemed to make the best out of what seemed to be a very daunting, and unjust situation. I also learned that after they are released, they are sent out without any new clothes, food, transportation, etc. The organization we partnered with in Malawi allowed us to follow along as they took them to a second-hand store to get them new clothes, feed them, and then find them a way home to their families. It was amazing to listen to the testimony of these people who were serving the inmates and then, of course, the inmates being served.
As a law student, I was fascinated by their legal system. I was able to watch, up close, through their hearings and taking a look at their outside “courtrooms” and paper files. I feel blessed to have been able to be a part of a team that was able to release 13 inmates and send them back to their families. Many of these people had unjust sentences for petty offenses and were wrongfully accused. All I had heard about the awful prison conditions before my trip was true. However, what stuck out to me most was the Malawian peoples’ reaction to these circumstances. They did not retaliate, yet, they showed beautiful strength in continuously trying to make the best out of their situation. They played sports outside, helped each other, and prayed together. I have a new-found appreciation for these organizations we were able to work with who are hands-on, in the prisons, continuously trying to change the system each day. These people do not deserve the conditions that have been handed to them, and many times are not even given the opportunity for justice.
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Kylie graduated from Grand Canyon University with a B.S. in Business Management. She is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and hopes to use her law degree to make a positive impact in her community. When not in law school, Kylie enjoys being with her family and friends, traveling and volunteering.