Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Malawi, IRLI has provided over 35,000 cloth masks for all prisoners and prison staff in 31 prisons and reformatory centres.
Masks for all prisoners in Malawi
On April 2nd former President Peter Mutharika confirmed the first three cases of COVID-19, and numbers have grown steadily since then. IRLI immediately started to think about the risks COVID-19 presents to prisoners in Malawi, who are living in some of the world’s most overcrowded prisons.
In Malawi, over 14,700 people are in custody, with an official capacity for over 5000 people, according to the latest Prison inspectorate report. Percentage-wise the prisons operate at 260% capacity. It is one of only 22 countries worldwide whose prisons operate at over 200% capacity. In reality, this means prisoners sleeping side by side, on the ground in tiny cells with very little ventilation. There is no access to running water, and no flushing toilets, and relying on visitors to deliver daily meals.
In addition, there are many people in custody with acute and chronic illnesses, terminal illnesses, people with mental health conditions, pregnant women, and elderly prisoners. To give just two examples, IRLI is aware of a 70-year-old woman with diabetes and a 71-year-old man with tuberculosis currently in custody. These co-morbidities pose extreme risks to prisoners who are already vulnerable and living in conditions that do not allow any level of social distancing. In other words, Malawi’s prisons are the perfect incubator for such a disease. Prisoners are now in fear for their lives.
The 71-year-old mentioned above said
“I think I will die in prison. This corona will find me here and finish me. Once the virus finds its way into prison it will be impossible to prevent it from spreading.”
IRLI alongside other NGOs working in the criminal justice sector in Malawi began to advocate for the government for an effective COVID-19 response in the prisons. Steps needed to be taken to quickly decongest the prisons as well as provide adequate preventative measures in the prisons such as screening of incoming visitors/staff, PPE for all staff, masks for prisoners and adequate handwashing facilities for all prisoners. IRLI also wanted to take action to ensure that the lives of prisoners were being protected and approached an organisation called Masks4AllMalawi, which was producing and distributing reusable cloth masks to the most vulnerable. In collaboration with the Malawi Prison Service, IRLI facilitated the procurement of over 35,000 cloth masks for all prisoners and prison staff in 31 prisons and reformatory centres. Each prisoner received two masks and was trained on proper use. Both prisoners and prison officers were delighted to receive the masks which provide some protection against the spread of COVID-19.
Providing masks was a small but important step towards mitigating the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons, and protecting the rights of those in custody. IRLI is continuing to work closely with the Malawi Prison Service, other criminal justice stakeholders, civil society and the national humanitarian platforms to ensure that prisons are prioritised by the government’s National COVID-19 Response Plan.