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Malawi Government Under Pressure to Pardon COVID-19 Prisoners 

FILE - Tailors make face masks at the Tayamba Tailoring shop, which has embarked in the business of producing face masks intended to protect against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Lilongwe, Malawi, May 4, 2020.

In Malawi, pressure is mounting on authorities to consider decongesting the country’s prisons after 51 inmates and 16 prison guards tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks.

Prisoners’ rights activists are pushing for immediate release of the infected inmates as a measure to prevent the disease from spreading further among the prison population.

Malawi prison authorities say they have been deeply concerned since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed on July 14 at Mzimba Prison in northern Malawi.

“To be very honest, it is becoming a little bit tough to prevent and manage this pandemic in our prisons simply because prisons are over congested, so, some of the measures we are supposed to implement or reinforce in the light of COVID-19 pandemic cannot work. For example, issues of social distance,” Chimwemwe Shaba, national spokesperson for Malawi Prison Services, said via a messaging app.

Shaba said prison authorities have introduced various measures to help contain the virus, such as putting all infected prisoners into separate areas, and a ban on visits by prisoners’ friends and family.

“And again we have suspended out day-to-day operations that require inmates to go out of prison formations to work, so that we reduce the risk of contact between the inmates and the outsiders,” he said.

Shaba also said all new inmates are being quarantined for 14 days before being sent to various prisons.

However, prisoners’ rights lobby groups say this is not enough. They have appealed to President Lazarus Chakewera to consider releasing some inmates to decongest the prisons.

The Center for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance is among seven rights groups calling for decongestion of the prisons.

Victor Mhango is its executive director.

“Our prisons are very congested. The space which was meant for 5,500 prisoners as I am taking today is being accommodated by 40,000 prisoners. If we can let the prisoners be just the way they are today, it will actually be the breeding ground for the virus,” he said.

In the letter to the president, Mhango said they suggested a number of factors for the president to consider.

“We are talking of terminally ill prisoners. We have so many prisoners on TB [tuberculosis]. We have been hearing from health experts that if this virus can contract someone with some diseases, the possibility of someone dying is very high. We are also taking of old age, we have some people are 65, 70, 80 years old who are in prison.”

The call comes a few days after Chakwera pardoned the first prisoner to contract coronavirus.

Home Affairs Minister Richard Chimwendo Banda told VOA by phone Monday the government has taken heed of the call to release some prisoners.

Banda said the government committee will meet Tuesday for a final recommendation on how to decongest the prisons. He says they will also put in place measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Prisons spokesperson Shaba said this arrangement has prompted prison guards to call off a planned sit-in strike this week, against lack of personal protective equipment in prisons.