WASH assessments for COVID-19 prevention in Malawi Prisons

In Malawi, as elsewhere in the world, many tools are being deployed to win the fight against COVID-19: masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), handwashing facilities and menstrual hygiene management (MHM) kits are being distributed to communities and public spaces.
Asayire Kapira, Gloria Nyirennda, & Philip Son
Female inmates at a prison facility in Malawi
Female inmates at a prison facility in Malawi attend training on Menstrual Health and Hygiene

While many people enjoy access to these services and products, the same cannot be said about incarcerated populations—including those of Mzimba, Maula, and Mzuzu Prisons, where the WSSCC National Coordinator (NC) office and the Water and Environmental Sanitation Network (WESNET) recently conducted a rapid assessment to understand institutional WASH gaps in light of COVID-19.

The assessment—which consisted of visual observation, focus group discussions, and scorecards filled out by prisoners, clinical officers, environmental health officers, and prison warders—revealed how prisons are being forgotten in the pandemic response despite their dire WASH conditions.

Mr Wilbes Tembo, Assistant Environmental Health Officer for Maula Prison, shared how prisons currently do not have the capacity to follow COVID-19-related hygiene measures. “Think about the overcrowding in our prisons,” said Tembo.

“Inmates cannot observe social distancing measures, even though we have just received six inmates who tested positive for COVID-19.”

Female inmates in Malawi learn about Menstrual health and hygiene
Lessons on Menstrual health and hygiene are valuable for female inmates in Malawi

Walking around the prison premises, the NC observed how only a few prison staff were wearing a mask; none of the prisoners had one, though the WHO now recommends governments to encourage the use of masks, especially in settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

The NC also noted that while there was a handwashing facility at the main gate, temperature checks were not being conducted.

These deficient measures stood in stark contrast to those of other public premises such as hotels and hospitals and hotels, where all visitors undergo temperature checks and are provided with masks.

The rapid assessment highlighted another weak area of sanitation and hygiene in prisons: menstrual hygiene and health (MHH). In a participatory exercise conducted as part of the rapid analysis, female inmates identified lack of sanitary products, safe disposal options, water, and support from prison staff as some of the key challenges to managing menstruation with dignity.

Prison inmates at Mzuzu Prison brainstorm on the WASH gaps at the prison
Prison inmates at Mzuzu Prison brainstorm on the WASH gaps at the prison. Photo Credit: Asayire Kapira

A prison officer, Ms Susan Harawa, corroborated this observation, recounting a sad story:

“One day, there was a terrible smell in a room. No one could figure out the cause. We found out later that one of the inmates was using the mattress to manage menstruation.”

Despite these poor conditions, Mzimba, Maula, and Mzuzu prisons have not received support from NGOs for COVID-19.

“Prisons are rarely visited and supported by NGOs. This remains the case even in emergencies,” Mr Tembo lamented.

To fill in these gaps in WASH and development support in prisons, the NC will now help provide some of the necessary WASH supplies—including reusable sanitary pads, soap, hand sanitizers, face masks/shields for both prisoners and warders, and chlorine for disinfection.

This support will complement MHH training that will be carried out by Saint John of God  through WSSCC’s financial support.