Malawi’s COVID-19 response is devastating to its prison population – especially women

Image of crowded prison in Malawi by Luca Sola

Malawi is one of 20 countries with a prison population at over 200% capacity. A COVID-19 outbreak there would be devastating.

Up until now, Malawi’s health ministry has registered 4,361 cases – including 128 deaths. [1] Many campaigners and activists believe that number is an underestimate due to low testing capacity in the African country.

Its overcrowded prisons are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The government’s response is compounding that threat – especially for women.

Up until now, women in Malawi’s prisons lived in safer, less overcrowded conditions than their male counterparts. But those women have now been transferred to prisons hundreds of kilometres away to make space for isolation centers.

The women were transferred out of Maula, Zomba, Thyolo and Mzimba prisons. These transfers mean they are now far from the families they depend on for essential support. The Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has meant the women have been moved to more unsanitary and overcrowded prisons – increasing the risk to their safety.

A group of 49 women formerly held at Maula prison have been transferred six hours away by public transport, to Mzuzu. This move means their families cannot bring them food and other essentials such as sanitary items.

Amongst the women transferred to Mzuzu was a 17-year-old pregnant girl (now released on bail) who needed support from family for her dietary needs. A 70-year-old woman on remand was also relocated to Mzuzu, which not only took her away from her family but further exposed her to the risk of infection while in transit.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical equipment is still often lacking in Malawi’s prison clinics. The people locked up and the prison staff need more than masks, soap and buckets to prevent and contain a potentially deadly outbreak of the virus.

That is why we are one of seven organisation working in Malawi calling on Malawi to take action and decongest its prisons as a matter of public health. Most inmates in Malawi’s prison are there unlawfully as their sentences were not confirmed by the High Court. The slow pace of trials has led to prisons with a 260% over-population.

[1] “Malawi human rights groups warn of Covid deaths in packed prisons,” The Guardian (August 6, 2020).