oyce Banda just loves prisons and prisoners. She is barely four months old in office but she has already visited not one but two prisons, quite a feat considering her rather hectic schedule. And has (and some might say controversially) pardoned 377 of them during the Republic Day celebrations. A good friend of mine actually wondered whether Abiti had been imprisoned in her earlier life.
Her visit to Maula Prison in Lilongwe was quite poignant considering that not too long ago she was forced to walk for a good kilometre when she went to give moral support to one Atupele Austin Muluzi who was a guest at the penitentiary then. I guess she found it imperative to do an encore visit in her changed circumstances. Returning in majesty to a place you were once treated like a nincompoop feels great, does it not?
Then she was off to Mzuzu Prison. Like was the case with her Maula junket, she brought the inmates of Mzuzu Prison a lot of freebies. She did one better here though; she literally dragged Mzuzu business tycoon and PP official Harry Mkandawire by the neck and made him pledge to construct a hostel. Not to miss out on the action, Vice-President Khumbo Kachali also chipped in with a bull and a plasma television set.
I have no qualms with leaders spoiling people, including prisoners, with gifts but I guess there is a better way of doing things. Look, we have 23 prisons in Malawi and all of them have common problems chief among them over-crowding and lack of basic necessities like beddings and food. Is President Banda going to visit - and donate to - them all? Indeed is Khumbo Kachali going to dole out plasma television sets to them all?
Like I said, all our prisons have similar problems but certainly some are worse off than others. Did Mama Joyce pick the two prisons she has so far visited based on a needs assessment or just because she went to see a political ally the other day or that one vocal cleric was once incarcerated at one of them?
I would like to believe that the prisons department has a budget and funds are allocated to particular prisons based on calculations of needs. Is directly donating to particular prisons not going to disturb planning? I know the staple dish in prisons is basically nsima and beans, I guess Mzuzu Prison will be inundated with cross-transfer requests, thanks to the zebu and the plasma television set the Second Citizen donated.
By the way, had Khumbo Kachali consulted Kennedy Nkhoma, the new prisons chief, I don’t think a plasma television set could have jumped anywhere near the top 10 priority needs of prisons. I know prisons are supposed to reform inmates and therefore inmates must not be denied some pleasures being enjoyed by those outside. But knowing our prison system I think a television set is not a priority. In fact it will just be an added headache for prison warders.
This is how I mean: look, what time will the inmates be watching the TV? Will it be fixed on MBC TV or Khumbo and Martha (the Second Couple) will subscribe for the lucky prisoners DSTv? Will the prison authorities relax the time they let the prisoners out? Does the prison department have enough manpower to watch over the prisoners as they are out watching TV right into the dead of the night?
If truth be told, if the prisoners are to appreciate the plasma television set donation to the maximum they should be allowed to watch the current London Olympics and football when the British Premier League begins. Surely I don’t see how Kennedy Nkhoma and his officers can handle cheering prisoners way into the night.
The point is I guess the veep should have been better advised on an appropriate gift to buy the prison. I guess a number of transistor radio sets to be distributed in cells could have done the trick than the television set.
And, come to think of it, our leaders' new love for prisons comes at a wrong time. If truth be told crime has soared of late. Defilement and rape cases are a daily occurrence while armed robbers are on the rampage with reckless abandon. It is not wrong for our leaders to inculcate a culture in us that those behind bars are also human. But what about the victims of crime? Victims of sex crimes like rape and defilement would consider insensitive our leaders cozying up to perpetrators while they struggle to mend their messed up lives at victim support units in hospitals.
A plasma television set would surely be more useful at the fistula centre at Bwaila Hospital where the young girl who got raped and impregnated in the process would be struggling to be repaired of the resultant obstetric fistula.
I know our prisons are in a mess. Joyce Banda and her team need to invest their energies in reforming the system rather than wallowing in one-off feel-good gestures. The Banda administration has to engage the courts in reforming the judiciary. If truth be told, there a lot of people in prisons today who do not deserve to be there. There are people who are remanded in jail for over five years without having their day in court.
And, again, there are some convicts of petty crimes who do not deserve custodial sentences. For example, Joyce Banda herself at Mzuzu Prison gave an example of a woman who is serving time for defending herself from an abusive husband. Such cases should be adjudged by counselling and observation rather custodial sentences.
If she can work on the judiciary system and reform it President Banda would not need to cajole Harry Mkandawire to build more hostels in prisons. And Khumbo and Martha can find a better use for their plasma TV.