Coronavirus banishes female inmates to far-flung jails in Malawi

CHARLES PENSULO

MALAWI is transferring female prisoners to remote jails in a bid to slow the pandemic, but human rights groups say the move could instead spread the coronavirus and damage the women’s welfare.

They say the relocation ends all family visits, leaving the women isolated and short of basics, from food to sanitary pads.

“These transfers are unprecedented, and devastating to many of the women, who are now far from their families and housed in unsanitary and congested cellblocks,” Alexious Kamangila of Reprieve, a local human rights organisation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The government said it had no choice but to move the women to keep them safe from COVID-19, even if the transfers had severed their access to loved ones and many vital provisions.

The aim was to prevent incoming prisoners from infecting the women and to create space for new isolation units.

“There is COVID-19 which has ambushed us as a country and as (a) department,” Chimwemwe Shaba, spokesman for the Malawi Prison Services, said in an interview.

“Some of the things of the things that we used to enjoy are no longer there. We understand the issues they raised but these are some of the things we have to compromise,” Shaba said.

Transfers began this month, with 71 women shunted hundreds of miles from home to make way for new inmates as authorities tried to stop the coronavirus racing through jails.

The southeast African nation of 18.14 million has recorded 5,026 cases of the virus, with cramped cellblocks the perfect site for its spread.

The women transferred to prisons right across the country, were convicted of crimes ranging from murder to mob justice and are serving sentences of up to life. Others are on remand and are yet to stand trial.

RISKS RISE

Yet rights groups say that far from halting the pandemic, the government has increased the risk of the virus reaching new communities, with cell blocks now housing an excess of prisoners and guards at risk of carrying the virus home.

Reprieve, along with five other human rights groups, has called on the government to change tack urgently, saying “a nation is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable.”

It said dozens of women from Maula prison, in the capital Lilongwe, were transferred to the northern city of Mzuzu — six hours by public transport — earlier this month and their families can no longer visit them or take in provisions.

“Remember, most of the prisoners are poor and cannot afford luxury. Most of them, they cannot afford a lawyer and most of them have babies, so they will definitely be detached,” Victor Mhango of the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance, a local charity, said in a phone interview.

The government said it had no choice.

“We had to create some space to quarantine some people and to protect those that are already inside. We only have 138 women prisoners in the country. And because of that, we have made sure that they must be safe,” Minister of Homeland Security, Richard Chimwendo Banda, said in a phone interview.

“This is to ensure that they don’t get the virus rather than just mixing them with those who might join them. The charities have to look at the bigger picture.”

Chimwendo Banda said a special COVID-19 committee would decide if some women could be pardoned to ease congestion.

“We have also procured personal protective equipment to protect those who may not be pardoned,” he said.

“At the end of the day, the way we are taking care of the prisoners is the way we are taking care of everyone out there because they still have right to life,” he said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation.