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

Overcrowding and the lack of sanitary resources are heightening the risk of COVID-19 in prisons. Raising this alarm is Mr Christopher Mhone, Programs Manager for Saint John of God (SJoG), a local NGO in Malawi that provides services to vulnerable populations such as prison inmates
Elizabeth Wamera and Philip Son
Mazimba Prisons in Malawi

As of mid-July 2020, this country of 18 million people has experienced approximately 2,500 cases of COVID-19 and 40 deaths. But as health authorities have repeatedly stated, large groups of people in enclosed spaces constitute a major risk for the spread of the virus – and Malawi’s prisons are severely overcrowded. Mr Mhone goes on to say, “One of the prisons we work in – the Nkhatabay district prison – currently accommodates over 170, although it was designed for 80.”

This overcrowding means that in most instances prison inmates are unable to undertake physical distancing. But even more worrying is the dire level of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) conditions commonly found in Malawi’s prisons.

“Inmates lack access to handwashing facilities, soap, and sanitary pads. They are also reporting increasing cases of bedbugs and scabies. These experiences are putting prisoners under a lot of anxiety,” explains Mr Mhone. 

With occupancy levels over twice the official capacity on average, the prisons already have high levels of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and scabies and the fear is that if COVID-19 were to be introduced to a prison, it could spread like wildfire. 

SJoG has provided psychosocial support to inmates in Malawi’s prisons since 1994 and was already well aware of the difficult circumstances of inmates. The organization has, more recently, come to understand the impact that these poor sanitary conditions are having on the mental health of prisoners.