Blantyre - As Malawi faces El Nino-induced hunger which has affected 6.5 million people, inmates in the country’s prisons are going for days without food.
A survey by Medicins San Frontiers (MSF) revealed that as a food crisis unfolded in the southern Africa nation, prisons were failing to purchase simple food stuffs such as maize flour and beans.
MSF singled out Mulanje as one of the worst-hit penal institutions in Malawi where prisoners were malnourished and looked like living skeletons.
“Prisoners were seen crawling on the ground to collect scraps of food that were thrown over the wall to feed them. Skeletal people were in such a state of malnutrition they looked like ‘’victims in a concentration camp,” reads a statement from MSF part.
The screening of 357 inmates at the small prison in Mulanje district revealed that 14% of all prisoners were severely malnourished.
“Many of the prisoners in Mulanje displaying signs of malnutrition were HIV positive or had tuberculosis.
“Having these conditions increases a person’s risk of becoming malnourished - and without adequate nutrition, the immune systems of HIV and TB patients will be weakened further,” said MSF deputy head of mission in Malawi Nicolette Jackson in a statement.
Malawi prisoners attend a social gathering within the prison premises. (News24)
In light of the crisis, Jackson appealed to donors and multilateral organisations to step in by addressing gaps in funding.
While around $6.9-million was needed each year to feed inmates, prisons in Malawi were critically underfunded.
During 2016 financial year, the prisons received a measly $2 500 to feed 14 000 prisoners in the country’s 28 jails.
Besides hunger, HIV epidemic was also haunting prisoners. Out of the 1 913 prisoners at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, 600 were HIV positive.
Civil society organisations were pressing Malawi leader Peter Mutharika to intervene in the crisis by pardoning prisoners convicted of minor offences.
Mutharika, in response to the call, pardoned 243 prisoners recently but human rights activists were still unimpressed.
“The number of the pardoned prisoners was just too small considering how congested the prisons are. We suggest that the president should consider pardoning 2000 to 3000 prisoners not just about 250, if current challenges in prisons, including shortage of food, are to reduce,” said one activist, Victor Mhango.
Meanwhile the Malawi Prison Service has embarked on farming initiatives as a strategy to address the challenge of food shortages.
Malawi Prison Service spokesperson Smart Maliro told News24 that the programme would assist the prisons to grow its own food.
Prisoners in Malawi singing hymns. (News24)
“The government cannot afford to provide food in the country’s prison as such this programme will help to address such issues,” he said.
Besides prisons, hospitals were also facing a similar challenge and some had started growing food for patients.
Meanwhile, the government with support from World Food Programme (WFP) had started distributing food to affected citizens.
According to Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs about 1.2 million people have already received food aid.
The department’s communications officer Jeremiah Mphande said besides the food handouts, WFP is also doling out cash to some beneficiaries.
Malawi says the total budget for this year’s Food Insecurity Response Plan which is targeting 6.5 million food-insecure people is pegged at $395 million.
El Niño-induced drought affected a number of countries in southern Africa.
Currently, about 30 million people need emergency food assistance in Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.