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Detained for a dream: Inhumane treatment in Malawi's prisons


“We are 204 in this cell,” says Thomas, a Malawian inmate, pointing to the number written on a blackboard in the 60m2 cell – about the size of five parking bays. Fellow inmate Abeba is in his thirties and comes from Durame, an impoverished town in one of Ethiopia’s rural areas. “We are not criminals! But now, in prison, we are not human anymore,” he says.

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It’s the terrible conditions, health impacts and isolation that chip away at them. The worst is at night. The heat emanating from dozens upon dozens of bodies inside the small cell is so stifling it’s palpable. The men are squeezed together on the bare cement floor, with an area of less than 0.5m2 for each person. Packed tightly, the inmates sit up in rows when it is time to sleep, their heads lolling on their knees. Many have developed severe pressure sores.

This is the harsh human reality of overcrowding in Maula, which was originally built to accommodate 800 prisoners. Today, Maula is bursting at the seams with 2 650 inmates – more than three times the prison’s capacity. Mixed in among this desperate population are the most vulnerable: 270 undocumented migrants who were arrested en route during their long journeys to South Africa.  As of July 21 the majority of these detainees – 232 – were Ethiopians. A further 95 Ethiopian migrants are also being detained in other prisons in two other prisons in the country.

The migrants in Maula tell me they were all driven by desperation to survive and search for work opportunities. These men are all detained on charges of illegal entry in Malawi, and most have been sentenced to three months’ detention. But the reality is that they have been locked away for far longer.

While the law requires they be deported back to their countries of origin after detention, bureaucratic delays impede any way forward, and they are expected to cover their own expenses for repatriation. Most do not have the money to do this.

Three young men are grading beans outside their cell. “You see? These are not good. They are uncooked and rotten,” says one of the men. “We eat them like that,” another inmate adds. Prisoners in Maula get food only once a day. They usually eat a plate of nsima – ground maize that fills the stomach but doesn’t provide many nutrients. Beans are an occasional treat. Nutrition among the inmates is so poor MSF had to treat 18 men suffering from malnutrition, since inmates receive an inadequate supply of food in terms of quantity and nutritional value.

MSF medical teams working in the prison’s clinic have observed the inmates’ poor health condition due to their long and difficult journeys and detention conditions. Aside from malnutrition many suffer from pneumonia, severe malaria and sexually transmitted infections. Recently a group of Ethiopians went on a week-long hunger strike in protest of the conditions under which they are living. 

Given migration patterns in southern Africa, the issue of undocumented migrants transiting through Malawi will likely increase over time. The situation for these migrants is becoming a humanitarian concern.

Emmanuel, another Ethiopian inmate, pulls out his torn wallet. He opens it and shows me the transparent sleeve inside. Instead of pictures, it holds his talisman: a piece of paper with three phone numbers on it. “These are my friends in South Africa,” he says.

In the courtyard of the prison Abeba gazes at the other inmates playing football. I ask him if he wants to go back to his country. He turns his head towards me, with a serious smile, too mature for his age: “We can’t go back. If we go back to Ethiopia, what could we do there? We can’t work anymore. We have become too sick for any kind of work.”

A young boy leaning on a wall turns to me: “My dream is to reach South Africa; this is what I have worked towards for years. I knew it would be difficult, but I never thought I’d end up here. I thought Africans were all brothers. But here … here it seems different.” He stares at me – as if questioning for the first time what he had always thought to be true.

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