COVID-19: Providing a helping hand to prison inmates in Malawi

In the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, Malawi has been deploying all means available to protect its population. Face masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), handwashing facilities and menstrual hygiene management kits are among the items being provided to communities and households but, unfortunately, not to some of the country’s prisons.
Asayire Kapira and Gloria Nyirenda
WASH experts at Mzuzu prison facility in Malawi

While most segments of the population have access to the means to protect themselves from the virus and prevent its spread, it is not the case for inmates at Malawi’s Maula and Mzuzu Prisons.

Representatives of the WES Network and the WSSCC National Coordination team visited both of the prisons as part of an assessment exercise they were conducting to improve their understanding of the gaps in the availability of equipment and facilities.

Mr Wilbes Tembo, Head of the Environment Department at Maula Prison, shared his concerns with the visitors.

“As a prison, we feel we are not very ready to fight the pandemic because we do not have the necessary PPE for everyone more especially inmates,” said Mr Tembo.

“Imagine, none of the inmates has a mask. This is a basic item to avoid contracting and further spreading the disease, before all these other preventive measures,” he said.

WASH supplies hand over to Mzuzu Prison.

A walking tour of the prison premises revealed to the visitors the presence of a handwashing facility at the main gate. A few of the officers wore masks but none of the prisoners did. There was no temperature checking at the main entrance, unlike other public premises such as hospitals and hotels where the temperature of all visitors is checked before entry and everyone is provided with masks.

“Given the congestion in our prisons, this means no social distancing for the inmates is being observed. And we have just received six inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. Even though they are in isolation and their contacts have been quarantined, they still pose a threat to the community, considering the nature of a prison environment,” he said.

“The good news is that these inmates do not have complications requiring medical attention,” he added.

Prison inmates at Mzuzu Prison brainstorming on the WASH gaps at the prison

Asked how female inmates are managing menstruation, Tembo replied that, during the pandemic, all female prisoners from the Central and Northern Regions, including Maula, had been transferred to Mzuzu Prison to create room for quarantine of COVID-19 cases.

Tembo recommended re-usable masks, gumboots for fumigation, Chlorine (HTH-High Test Hypochlorite) bar soaps, a thermometer and heavy gloves as items required to close the main equipment gaps for the prison.

Members of the Malawi WASH forum recommended that delivery of WASH services to prison facilities should be prioritized to bridge the gaps and ensure sanitation and hygiene for all the people in prisons.

Also read Prisons and the pandemic in Malawi: the critical role of WASH