In the last week I have made my first visit to the Maula prison women's section. The vast majority of detainees within the Malawian prison system are men between the ages of 20-29 and so there is not a particularly high demand for our services from the women's section. For example on our last count there were only 11 women in pre-trial detention in Maula in comparison with 486 men. Given that women and children are more likely to be the target population of many international NGOs and men feature disproportionately in prison populations, the conditions in Maula for women and Kachere for juveniles is usually better than in the men’s section. That is not to say that being a woman in prison in Malawi, or anywhere, is exactly a delightful experience. Prison is often a very expensive way of making vulnerable women’s life situations much worse. Once a woman is incarcerated miles from her home, sometimes for months or years without the case progressing, she may lose her home, her relationships and her children in the process. In Malawi once released from prison such a woman may have no place to return to, in particular if her husband has remarried, and as she had previously been a caretaker of her family she may not be able to source any employment either. This leaves her in a very precarious situation with a high potential of her ending up right back in the prison she has just left, often as a person with no conviction as she was held in pre-trial detention during her whole stay.
Prison causes damage and disruption, in particular, to the lives of vulnerable women, many of who pose no risk to the public. Visiting the Dochas center in Mountjoy prison, Dublin in 2007 I was struck by the high number of female detainees who were in prison for trivial thefts (sandwich/pregnancy test), small drug offences (possession rather than sale or supply) and most harrowing of all engaging in prostitution (the vast majority of whom were foreign nationals). I will accept that both of women who had stolen the sandwich and been found in possession of heroin had been caught doing the same type of offences on dozens of occasions prior to their incarceration but warehousing someone for two or three months and them putting them back onto the streets to commit the same offence again just seems like a terrible waste of resources to me. In particular given that the children of these women were often left without a parent during their incarceration. In the United Kingdom over 60% of women prisoners have young children and at least 4,000 children are affected by their mothers' imprisonment. Adding to that half of all babies under one year who are in care because their mothers are in prison are moved between 2 and 4 different homes. [Diane Caddle and Debbie Crisp: Imprisoned Women and Mothers, Research Study 162, Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate, 1997 ] In addition woman are in general held within a criminal justice system designed by men for men. This is quite visible in Maula where its almost as if the women's prison with a population of 27 women and 2 children has been tacked on to a larger prison of which currently houses 2008 prisoners.
I had ended up in the women’s section to have a consultation with a woman who had been mentioned to me on a number of occasions over the past month by both people working on the prosecution and defence side of criminal law. It’s generally been my impression that many of those working on both sides show a great deal of compassion towards those incarcerated in difficult circumstances. The woman, I had originally been told, was eight months pregnant and needed a lawyer to make a bail application. Unfortunately the lawyer who was hired by an NGO seems to have disappeared into the wind and when the case was mentioned to me again last week through the grapevine it was to say that she had just given birth by caesarean section and was now living in the prison with her child. And no bail application had been processed. I travelled the next day to meet the client and was astounded at the bravery and pride that she exhibited in such tough circumstances, although it was very evident that she wished to get out of the prison, and quickly. Our project has now drafted a bail application, which has been approved by legal aid, and we hope to file the papers tomorrow and progress the matter as quickly as possible (which still could be a few weeks given the backlog in the courts.)
This woman has spent four months in prison without being brought to court, being asked if she wanted to apply for bail or having the full details of the charge laid against her, in clear contravention of the Malawian Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code. She has been forced to spend the last four months of her pregnancy in custody and has now given birth to a child while in prison which I would argue is simply another form of violence against women. This is as bad as the practice of shackling women during childbirth in the US (a practice that has been significantly reduced in the last few years). It was the work of individuals within the system, which has resulted in her case coming to our attention however I am now left wondering if her bail surety will be set so high that she will be unable to take it up and we will be left in the same situation again come the application being heard…