When I arrived in Malawi four months ago I wrote a blog about the incredible work my friend Effie Makepeace has been doing with prisoners in Malawi. Determined to change the attitude of society towards prisoners and ex-convicts, Effie worked with prisoners in Chichiri prison to put together a performance which portrayed the horrific reality thousands of prisoners endure every day. Not only did the play make the audience aware of the conditions these people are forced to endure, but it highlighted the further difficulties ex-prisoners face when they are released; including the struggle to find employment and the assumption among communities and the police force, that they will re-offend. In the second half of the play, we saw a prisoner who had been released, being re-arrested for a more serious crime; the arrest largely based on the community mistrusting and blaming the ex-convict.
The drama group was led by Harrison Masangona. Harrison had served 19 years at Chichiri prison for theft and was released on the 16th May 2012. A few weeks ago Harrison was re-arrested on suspicion of murder and has now returned to Chichiri prison as a remandee.
The prison service do what they can with the budget they are given. However, with a budget for 800 people currently stretched to cover over 1800 people, rehabilitation is not top priority. Most of the larger prisons have an education department, with the more educated prisoners teaching English and Maths. Chichiri prison offers the convicted prisoners the opportunity to learn car mechanics and carpentry and some of the prisoners have an incredible talent for making jewellery out of Kwacha coins. The prison also has an area which a large majority of prisoners use to pray, where you will usually find Sister Anna, an Italian Nun who has dedicated many years to those condemned to Chichiri prison.
Some prisoners will be lucky enough to have the support and encouragement of people like Effie, Sister Anne and the paralegals at CHREAA before and after they are released from prison. Unfortunately these remarkable people cannot provide assistance to all of the prisoners released and as a result, many of the people who have served a considerable amount of time are often rearrested and back in prison within a matter of months. We cannot be sure if ex-prisoners are actually committing crimes or whether the stigma of having served a long time in prison is enough to create suspicion within the community. There is a huge need for re-integration programmes and in particular, regular contact with a probation officer, pastor or someone who can offer general support, to assist in preventing the cycle of reoffending that is so common across Malawi. Understandably, the prison budget is currently focused on providing food for 1800 mouths and ensuring that the sick have some sort of medical care. Rehabilitation is unfortunately considered an unaffordable luxury in Malawi.
Before I left, Harrison wrote me this poem. In just a few short sentences, he manages to express the feelings of thousands of other ‘nameless’ prisoners suffering injustice in Malawi.
The Caged Bird
I am the nameless one,
the nothing of man.
I feel a scrap of anger,
that I am in the hands of a stranger.
And now my freedom is stolen.
By Harrison Masangona