Malawi, “the warm heart of Africa”, ranks in the bottom 15 of the United Nation’s human development index. A huge proportion of its nearly 17m population live in poverty, infant mortality is extremely high, and life expectancy is low.
Such poverty almost inevitably means the country’s criminal justice system is under-resourced, leading, among other things, to serious prison overcrowding.
Many people find themselves locked-up for years while waiting for their cases to be heard — sometimes for what would be considered in Ireland as a minor offence — stealing a goat, or suspected of stealing a goat, to feed their family.
Think about that: you are so poor you resort to stealing something, anything, to feed your family. Or another member of your family steals the goat and you are both thrown into prison, waiting years for the case to be heard and without access to legal representation. That is where the Irish Rule of Law International’s (IRLI) Access to Justice programme comes in. And that is how I found myself swapping life as a lawyer with Ronan Daly Jermyn in Cork and Dublin at the start of this wet Irish summer, for a 12-month volunteer programme, working with some of the world’s poorest in south east Africa.
IRLI is a non-profit rule of law organisation established by the Law Society of Ireland and the Bar Council of Ireland, funded by Irish Aid, and Human Dignity Foundation.
The ultimate aim is to reduce overcrowding in the prisons, which are filled with not only convicts, but thousands of pre-trial unrepresented ‘remandees’.
Concerns about leaving naturally arose, but hearing some of the cases IRLI are involved in helped to alleviate any doubts. At IRLI’s annual fundraising dinner ‘Malawi by the Sea’, Morgan Crowe, who had just returned from a year as an IRLI programme lawyer working with the Legal Aid Bureau, described some of the cases he was involved in.
One included a prisoner, aged 17 years, sentenced to two years for stealing a bag of flour. He was lying on the floor of the prison, emaciated and unable to stand. He needed immediate medical attention, and Morgan arranged to get him transferred to the prison wing in a local hospital.
Morgan successfully sought the necessary release order from the High Court. After two days in hospital, the boy was released, but he could barely walk, such was the extent of his emaciation.
He died two days later at home with his family. They were able to take some comfort from the fact that he did not die alone in prison.
Child justice features heavily on the programme, with IRLI operating a child diversion programme to route youngsters who have come into conflict with the law away from the formal criminal justice system onto rehabilitation programmes.
The team visits police cells and work with local partners to identify children suitable for diversion. Ten year olds held for perhaps stealing, or fighting, are encouraged onto the programme, and training focuses on awareness of the crime carried out, and a willingness to change behaviour.
I recently visited a boys’ reformatory centre ito take a statement from a boy, 12, charged with murder, and to check up on an 11-year-old also charged with murder.
Turning off the main road, driving a mile or so down a dirt track I was surprised to be greeted by a somewhat tranquil setting, in stark contrast to Kachere boys’ reformatory centre in Lilongwe which can only be described as a prison.
Both boys’ families live several hours away and are unable to visit them as it would be a huge cost for the average Malawian. The boys play football, they support the reformatory team, and attend school. IRLI will work with the Legal Aid Bureau and judiciary to try have the boys’ cases heard as quickly aspossible.
Many children in the prison system in Malawi have never had access to a lawyer, most not knowing they are entitled to have one. Kachere currently houses 174 boys even though it was built to accommodate 70. There is now a strong focus in the judiciary on child justice issues, and on moving cases to conclusion.
The Child Justice Courts established in 2012, have greatly assisted the processing of child cases, however with huge resource issues — no case management system, a lack of computers, lack of training at various levels — the judiciary are working within a frustrated system, but things are improving.
Within a relatively short period of time, IRLI has become a recognised presence in the country with representation in the prisons, police stations, at the courts, Office of the DPP, and Legal Aid Bureau.
IRLI works with these stakeholders, often under extremely challenging conditions, to strengthen cooperation and co-ordination in the criminal justice system. The programme is strong on developing systemic, sustainable interventions aimed at providing long term benefits to the wider criminal justice sector.
Just over two months into the programme, even though it’s tough and challenging, I know I’ve made the right decision and am very grateful for the wonderful support of my fiancé, family, friends and colleagues in RDJ. It’s a privilege to have such an unforgettable experience, and the satisfaction of giving legal assistance to people in dire consequences who need it so desperately.
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