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Behind bars: Overcrowded, unsanitary, inhumane conditions

Chaplains in Malawi seek partners and advocates in prison reform

by Debbie Braaksma | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Mission co-worker Jeremy Garbat-Welch (left) at Zomba Central Prison in Malawi with Stanley Chimesya, chaplain of the CCAP’s Prison Ministry. (Photo by Nancy Collins)

LOUISVILLE — “May I humbly convey appreciation to you for your initiative and sponsorship …. Indeed, to me, it was as if I was dreaming until I realized that it was real. Of course, it was my first time to travel by plane. God is gracious, Hallelujah!”

Presbyterian World Mission received this heartfelt message from the Rev. Wickliff Kang’ombe Zulu, Nkhoma Synod prison chaplain, as he expressed gratitude for sponsorship of his attendance at the eighth annual International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform (CURE).

The conference, held in Kigali, Rwanda, brought together representatives from 18 countries to learn more about reconciliation in the framework of justice. Zulu was one of two prison chaplains of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) sponsored by the PC(USA). In an ecumenical effort, other CCAP chaplains were sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Canada. PC(USA) mission co-worker the Rev. Jeremy Garbat-Welch works with these chaplains in his capacity as facilitator for the CCAP’s Chaplain Training Program.

“It was also my first time to attend such an international conference, which has opened the way for international networking and exposure that will benefit our prison ministry,” said Zulu. “It was a successful conference that explored reconciliation, restorative justice practices, alternatives to imprisonment, and other issues in the criminal justice context, while taking an up-close look at the Rwandan experience of post-genocide reconciliation.

“In addition, there was sharing of experiences and knowledge of recent advances and trends in the area of human rights and prison reform. We visited several places of genocide, reconciliation village and one prison. By studying prison issues and lessons learned on forgiveness following the Rwandan genocide, I learned that it is possible for people to forgive one another after hurting each other. All in all, the conference was an eye-opener, helpful and energizing.”

Malawian prison chaplains such as Zulu work in conditions that are inhumane beyond words. The prisons are estimated to exceed their capacity by 200 percent. Overcrowding often leads to extremely unsanitary conditions. Prisoners deal with dirty water, foul toilets and intermittently working showers. There are no prison uniforms, no blankets with which to cover themselves and no soap. Inmates are fed one meal a day of beans and cornmeal mush (nsima) with water, which is nutritionally unsound, severely lacking in terms of vitamins and caloric intake. In these conditions, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases run rampant. In addition, many of the prisoners have been incarcerated for years without having their cases tried.

CCAP prison chaplains have primarily focused their attention on the important tasks of pastoral care, meeting the physical needs of prisoners and evangelism. And church members sacrificially support them and the inmates they serve with gifts of soap, food and clothes. But now, through gifts from individuals and congregations in the PC(USA), they have additional tools that will enable them to address structural justice issues at the root of the inhumane treatment.

Dr. Hans Hallundbaek, one of the organizers of the CURE conference, is director of Hudson River Presbytery’s Interfaith Prison Partnership, as well as a United Nations representative for the International Prison Chaplains Association and CURE International. His involvement in domestic and international prison reform is a reminder of Jesus’ call into mission in both “our Jerusalems” and to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

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Many struggles in Malawi are also struggles in the U.S. penal system as related to the injustices of mass incarceration and racism. Presbyterian churches on both sides of the water have much to learn from one another. Churches engaged in prison ministry and advocacy in the U.S. might be interested in developing partnerships of mutual learning and support of CCAP’s prison ministry and that of Jeremy and Luta Garbat-Welch.

To learn how you can become engaged in CCAP’s prison ministry, email debbie.braaksma@pcusa.org.


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