There has been more important news in Malawi, as the government has worked to settle a three month strike. The strike was over pay increases promised to civil servants and the magistrates went on strike in solidarity. While the strike took place, the entire court system of Malawi, which is slow to begin with, came to an absolute halt. No cases were heard and virtually no bail applications were granted, yet crimes and arrests continued.
Over the past few years, Sandy and I have gotten to become good friends with a group of English lawyers working here. Of the many expats trying to make a difference, these people have one of the toughest jobs. Whether they are working on high profile human rights cases or quietly churning out bail applications behind the scenes, I truly admire the work they do.
Because their work is so all-consuming (and probably because I’m the child of two lawyers) I find their work incredibly interesting and am constantly (and I am sure, annoyingly) asking questions. After awhile, I’ve started to know the characters they work with – who’s productive and motivated at Legal Aid, which prisoners have a good chance of getting bail, which prisoners have been on remand in prison for more than five years.
Last Friday, Sandy and I got the chance to visit Chichiri Prison with two of our lawyer friends. Chichiri prison is well-known and one of the biggest prisons in the country. Nestled right in the middle of an affluent neighborhood, you could easily drive by the site and completely miss it. While up-market chain stores, such as Game and Shoprite, are within sight of the prison, the prison itself feels like a completely separate world.
We walked there, on a packed clay path, over a wooden bridge that was missing every other slat, and past a steaming refuse pile. There was a neatly planted garden outside the main gate, and skinny, aggressive roosters wandered around freely.
The guards recognized our friends immediately and greeted them warmly. We had brought bags of books and magazines, clothes, and two soccer balls for the prisoners, which was our ticket in.
They opened a small portion of the green main gate for us to walk through, and waved us over to the guard house. As we passed through the gate and into a large enclosure, surrounded by towering brick walls covered in twisted barbed wire, inmates dressed in white shorts and loose white shirts walked in and out, carrying heavy trash bins.
The female guard patted me down and held onto my cell phone. Our friends led us through the main courtyard where prisoners were learning car mechanics in one corner and wood working in another. Once inside the main administrative building, the guards were efficient and purposeful, but still wearing the warm Malawian smile. The Station Chief, who was clearly a big fan of our two beautiful female lawyer friends, welcomed us into his office and with an air of formality, thanked us for the books, clothes, etc. He gave a slight bow and said to us, “when you go back to your beautiful country, please tell people that Malawians are your brothers and sisters!” Once done formally thanking us, he turned to my lawyer friend who was heading back to London and said “ok, now I am ready to come with you to the UK!” He then laughingly produced his passport with a wink, and thanked her for all of the hard work she had done.
While our friends discussed some official business with the Station Chief, we waited in the main hall with the big gate into the prison courtyards. On the wall, written in chalk, were the numbers of inmates. In total, Chichiri prison, which was built to hold 800 prisoners, held 1,915 as of last Friday. Of those, 8 are the small children of inmates. Perhaps the most staggering number is that of the 1,915 prisoners, 851 are on remand, meaning that they have not had a trail and probably no bail hearing. These prisoners are dressed in street clothes, while those who have been convicted are in the standard white shorts and shirt. Everyone there seemed depressed by the numbers – the guards, the lawyers, the prisoners – it was the worst many of them have ever seen. But when the courts are closed there is nothing to do but wait.
Eventually we were ushered into the upper courtyard where prisoners are allowed to be if they have a specific reason – going to the infirmary, a visit from family or friends, or an interview with a lawyer. It is a small neat area with small patches of brightly colored flowers. From this courtyard, you overlook the main prison courtyard, a long narrow rectangular space lined with people.
That was what made the most impact – the sheer number of people. They filled the large rectangle, many of them sleeping against the brick wall. We had brought the soccer balls, having heard that the prisoners had been asking for one. The paralegal took one look at the balls we brought and suggested that we donate them to the women prisoners for netball – apparently ours wouldn’t last one match with the male prisoners. Looking down at the red mud courtyard scattered with rocks, we could understand why.
At the gate to the lower courtyard we met up with Ephord*. Ephord was the stuff of legend and was one of the characters that we had heard so much about. He has been in Chichiri prison for over five years without trial. Actually, that’s not strictly true – he went to trial, the trial started, but then it was adjourned for lunch and never recommenced, lost in the system. Ephord has been waiting ever since. Tall and well dressed, Ephord feels like he’s in charge of the whole prison – he seems to know everyone – and he volunteers his time to interpret for prisoners when they are interviewed by the lawyers. Charged with murder (our friends say the circumstances of his arrest are strange – especially as the “signed confession” has “deny” scratched out and “admit” written in different handwriting over top), he has a gentle smile and kind words for us. It is very hard to imagine him as a murderer.
Many of the prisoners in Chichiri are charged with murder, but in roughly 70% of the cases, according to our friends, the circumstances of the murder are a drunken brawl. Two men are drunk – one pushes the other – he hits his head on a rock and dies, and the other is charged with murder.
Ephord led us through another gate and downstairs into the rectangle courtyard – people starred, but kept to themselves. They seemed interested in the bags of books. The clothes were taken by the guards to be distributed to the most needy of prisoners – apparently there are several with nothing at all to wear, so they are forced to remain in their cells.
We took the books to the small library and got to see the prison drama group working on their exercises and traditional dances. Enthusiastic and talented, it was a real privilege to see the drama group in action. Anther of our friends was helping to run the group, impressing us with her chichewa skills as well as her dancing. The drama group is small, but organized and an integral part of their rehabilitation process.
On our final lap of the tour, we saw the school, which follows the national curriculum and was just finishing exams. We also saw the blocks of cells from a distance, the new building that would house the library, and the covered building that produced the one meal a day for all 1,915 inmates.
Before leaving, we had a chance to meet a few more prisoners. I specifically remember Elias*, a 20 year old accountancy student who was arrested in January. Our friend brought him to meet us because he loves to practice his English and discuss his plans to complete university. Bright and engaging, he told us about his home and his family. He recognized the damage that a prison stay can do to one’s career, but he remained optimistic. We later learned the circumstances of his arrest – a robbery had been committed – it was rumored that a known friend of Elias’ owned a weapon – the police asked Elias where his friend was and he was arrested for not knowing. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong friends.
There are other sad stories of inmates -there is the elderly man who is blind. Until recently he was tied to a bed during the day because no one could be bothered to guide him around outside. There are stories of prisoners being granted bail, but because bail is set so high, they languish in prison, waiting without any hope of paying it themselves. There are those who are clearly innocent, but victims of the system, those who’s files have been lost or who come from so far away their families can’t visit.
The worst aspect of the prison is the sleeping situation in the cells. Because the prison is so overcrowded, the prisoners have no room to stretch out to sleep. Most sit up straight all night. Recently we heard it’s so bad that they are sleeping head to toe and then more prisoners lay on top of them. It explains why so many were passed out in the courtyard during the day.
Despite all of this, the guards seem to treat the prisoners with a sense of camaraderie. They do the best they can with limited resources and an ever decreasing budget.
Visiting the prison was an experience that will be hard to forget. The judiciary system being back in operation should help to relieve the conditions at the prison – there are rumors that they will hold camp courts and bring magistrates to the prison to fast track cases. As our friends, the paralegals, the human rights lawyers, legal aid lawyers, and magistrates continue their work, we will be able to hear how the cases are progressing. Maybe soon Elias can be out and back on track to finish his degree in accountancy, and Ephord can finally get his day in court and fulfill his dream of becoming a paralegal himself.
*I changed the names out of respect for their privacy