Into a Malawian Prison

by John Finegan


During the last 15 years the prison population in Malawi has tripled. Its prisons are now holding twice the designed capacity, which has placed them under a huge strain. Overcrowding and hard-stretched resources have resulted in three occasions when prisoners were released in large numbers, as successive presidents have tried to show goodwill. It is generally understood that those released served more than half their sentences and were examples of good behaviour. In 1995, 650 prisoners were released, with a further 398 in 2007, followed by an as-yet-undisclosed number in 2014. The official vision statement for Malawian prisons is: '[An] excellent correctional service that contributes to enhanced public security.'


There are 23 district prisons in Malawi. Built in 1935, Zomba Central Prison (ZCP) is the only maximum security jail in the country and holds a quarter of the nation's prisoners, in particular those with long sentences who have committed serious offences. There is also a block for condemned prisoners, though no executions have been carried out during the offices of the last three presidents.


The Malawi Prison Service has its headquarters in Zomba, meaning that a number of staff members live in the extensive prison grounds and many senior officers live nearby within the city. A ministry to this prison is vital.


Low wages within the judicial service result in positions being unfilled and subsequently there is little incentive for efficiency. Almost all those accused go to court without legal representation and even homicide cases are delayed due to lack of legal funding. Prisoners are being held whose case files have been lost.



During years of visits to ZCP, I have never seen beds, lockers, showers or toilets that flush. Washing is done with cold water in an open communal area. Sluice water runs in an open channel dividing two courtyards and must be stepped over to enter the single cooking area. Prisoners depend on visitors for essentials like soap, toothbrushes and even clothing.


Serious overcrowding leads to unrest among the prisoners, but the greater problem lies in increased cross-infection of HIV/AIDS, parasitic infestation, scabies and tuberculosis. These are exacerbated by the very meagre and unvaried diet.



During 2007, applications to access ZCP for evangelistic outreach were rejected. Apparently only large, established denominations could enter the prison and only if their members were incarcerated. Therefore a different approach was used, to offer free, non-denominational Bible study material for private study. This was accepted, on condition that all material entering and leaving would be checked by an appointed officer.


Consequently, I struck up a friendship with Rodney, the assigned officer. He showed a personal interest in the Emmaus Bible courses and was quietly reading the materials being offered. By 2008, Rodney had assigned six prisoners to act as coordinators; they found the enlisted students and distributed the courses. On completion, these men collected the exam papers and I would take them for grading and comment. This provided a foothold into the prison, although the turnaround of study material was slow. I believe Rodney has been saved.


Bibles supplied for the students kept disappearing and it was found that staff were selling the Bibles for profit. At first this was troubling, but I came to terms with the situation, knowing that even a stolen, re-sold Bible will be read by someone, somewhere. Amusingly, where I had blazed the word 'Prison' in bold, indelible marker along the thumb edges of Bibles, the same Bibles were seen in the town with the thumb edges completely coloured in!


By mid-2008 more than 250 prisoners were reading the Emmaus courses in Chichewa. However, due to the restrictions imposed, I had limited access to those prisoners who were distributing and collecting the courses.


To the Lord's glory, some prisoners clearly had trusted the Lord for salvation. This was evident in the answers to open questions in the courses, as well as comments. In contrast to this encouragement, it was difficult to keep good records as the inmates frequently changed their names - which is not unusual - and many would disappear from the prison. It was a constant challenge to determine who was who, and who was where! Authorities were reluctant to reveal the location of transferred prisoners, or even if they had been released. Follow-up was almost impossible.


In early 2012 the situation changed. Full access to the prison was granted, enabling us to meet with the prisoners for Bible study and Emmaus course distribution. This privilege is not taken lightly; a high degree of trust is placed in us by the authorities and in the inmates themselves, as I am not shadowed by any staff. Occasionally they will advise that free access is unwise due to unrest or lock-down conditions and I respect this advice. When this occurs, the staff will usually allow up to five believers to come through to a lower security area where we can meet together for study and prayer. This has led to many precious times.


Bible study is held almost weekly in an assigned room which can hold up to 110 men. This area is shared among 19 'Christian' denominations and has to be pre-booked. By continually promoting the Bible studies as being non-denominational, there is always a good mixture of Charismatics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, as well as Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. The Bible studies are unique in that anyone can attend, and usually between 80 and 110 will be present. The first hour of the gathering is simple gospel preaching, followed by half an hour of doctrinal teaching, finishing with a further half hour of questions and answers to encourage believers. These questions often reveal the heart of a prisoner. Only men who are not on hard-labour duties are free to attend, and, as visiting is only allowed in the mornings, it has not been possible to get all participants together at any one time.


It has always been our aim to hand over spiritual responsibilities to Malawian believers as they demonstrate maturity. To the Lord's praise this has now happened. A Malawian brother, Kondwani, joined me as a guest inside; he began to preach the gospel and became involved in the Emmaus work. He now holds a letter from the Commissioner of Prisons giving him the same level of access into ZCP. It is with thanks to God that this door remains open.



Kondwani needs our prayers. This is a tough place to visit and the Enemy loves to cause difficulties. Pray for Kondwani and his wife, Thokozani, that they grow in their faith and are protected from harm. Pray too that the Lord will grant them the energy and wisdom needed in marking Emmaus studies from the prisoners, as well as other contacts in ZCP. Currently they have 251 enrolled.


There are some bright shining lights in ZCP; believers who are being strengthened in the faith. Yet there are still those who are spiritually feeble and faltering. Pray that the Spirit of God will gently, yet persistently, fan the flames of those believers who are smouldering. God gives His own Word. He will not quench what warmth there is; He can cause embers to catch fire and burn brightly to His own glory!




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