Overcrowding, deaths hit Malawian prisons

In June alone, nearly 100 prisoners are reported to have died, a situation that was compounded by an outbreak of a skin plague.

Nation Online of Malawi quoted a warder at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre this week saying that “the authorities paid a blind eye to these and did not bother to take the majority of patients to hospital”.

But Chief Commissioner of Prisons MacDonald Chawona has dismissed the reports, saying according to official figures only 10 inmates at Chichiri died in May.

“These 10 died at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. When prisoners fall ill we take them to hospital. Our aim is to reform (prisoners) into better citizens and not to kill them,” said Chawona.

He confirmed that at Chichiri ‘ just like at any other prison ‘ overcrowding, TB, HIV/AIDS and skin diseases are the prevalent problems, and that 10 deaths per month in a prison population of 1 500 is just too high.

A recent report by Amnesty International (AI) on the situation in Malawian prisons said on average “more than 14 people died every month in an average prison population of 9 700 inmates”.

The AI said the International Committee of the Red Cross “considers that more than 15 deaths per month in a prison population of 10 000 in sub-Saharan Africa requires urgent remedial measures”.

Meanwhile, senior United Nations and British government officials have warned Malawi that any form of complacency in the country’s national response to HIV/AIDS could lead to a total catastrophe.

“Complacency is a major threat even with all the gains that have been made in the past few years in the global fights against HIV/Aids,” Peter Piot, executive director for the United Nations HIV/AIDS Programme (UNAids) told journalists in the capital Lilongwe. He was briefing journalists at the end of a three-day appraisal mission to Malawi with Britain’s Permanent Secretary for the Department for International Development (DFID) Suma Chakrabarti.

Piot said the world had come a long way since 2001 when the only developing country with HIV/Aids treatment services was Brazil but stressed the need for more money and political will in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

He observed that Malawi’s 2005 new HIV infection figure of 100 000 was unacceptably high and stressed the need for the country, where close to 1 million people are living with HIV, to do more to slow down the virus.

“Malawi’s new HIV infection rate is unacceptably high and as government and donor agencies we all must do something to reverse the trend,” he said.

On his part, Chakrabarti said there was still a lot to be done in the country’s efforts to curb HIV/AIDS spread and stressed the need for authorities to incorporate HIV/AIDS issues in national economic programmes.

“We don’t have to take HIV as a ghetto issue but as an integral part of the country’s economic growth,” he said, adding that DFID had made long-term financial and technical commitment towards the fight against HIV/Aids in Malawi and called upon other donors to follow suit.

The two officials, however, applauded the country’s current efforts that had resulted in increased access to HIV testing, treatment and care services.

They observed that in a span of only two years, Malawi had managed to increase the number of infected people getting life-prolonging drugs from less than 4 000 in June 2004 to almost 50 000 by June this year.

The two added that Malawi had managed by the end of last year to have over half a million people tested for HIV from 160 000 in 2004.

“We are at a turning point in HIV response in Africa and we are starting to see results as countries in East Africa are reporting good results due to access to testing and treatment. Malawi is not yet there but all the signs are evident,” said Piot.

Piot and Chakrabarti visited a community of people living with HIV in the central highland district of Dedza and later met with President Bingu wa Mutharika in Lilongwe.

Since the first HIV case was discovered in Malawi in 1985, the country’s life expectancy at birth has been drastically reduced to 36 years, according to the United Nations Development Programme. About 85 000 Malawians die of the pandemic every year.

Malawi currently has more than US$600 million committed by donors and the government to finance a national response to HIV/AIDS up to 2009.

July 2006
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