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Progressive prison initiative takes root in Malawi

Malawi is a land with few resources, save for its big heart

by Hans Hallundbaek | Special to Presbyterian News Service

If you dream of moving mountains tomorrow, you must start lifting small stones today. —  Malawian proverb

The Republic of Malawi is a small, landlocked country in the fertile highlands of Southeastern Africa, boarded by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. Malawi is about the size of the state of Ohio, but with about double the population and rapidly growing.

You may know of Malawi from the story about Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who visited the area in the mid-1800s (hence the many Presbyterian churches in the country) or more recently from the public excitement when in 2016 the album I Have No Everything Hereby prisoners from the Zomba Prison was nominated in the United States for a Grammy Award in the “Best World Music Album” category.

A recent donation from the CURE organization in Washington, D.C., allowed the Rev. Kondowe and Lyca Mhone to bring gifts of soap and food condiments to the prison population in Malawi. (Contributed photo)

Malawi may soon hit the news again for its forward-thinking stance on prison reform. Malawi prison administrators and local faith organizations are staffed by individuals with vision and determination to “move mountains tomorrow,” which includes pioneering the “Adopt-A- Prison” concept, which has proven a successful community outreach program in two female prison in New York State where it was first introduced a couple of years ago, and now in addition to Malawi is being implemented in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Pakistan.

Malawi has decided to introduce the Adopt-A-Prison concept in the Thyolo Female Prison under the firm leadership of Brian Natro Kondowe, who is the National Prisons Service Chaplain in charge of Malawi prison chaplains, while finishing his theological training at Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Blantyre Synod, founded by Church of Scotland missionaries in 1876 and today partnering with Pittsburgh Presbytery.

Like that of other poor African countries, the prison situation in Malawi is strained. The prison capacity is about 7,000 inmates, while the current number of incarcerated individuals exceeds 14,000. Says Chaplain Kondowe, “Due to the limitation of resources, prisoners do not have access to services consistent with human dignity requirements as evidenced by uncleanliness, overcrowding and the shortage of humanitarian supplies. All this explains the unhygienic conditions the prisoners must live in.

He further explains that while the prison administration provides one uniform to each convicted prisoner, most of them are worn out and the prisons are unable to make new ones. For the prisoners, this problem becomes critical in the winter season, especially since most of them not only lack warm clothing but are also barefooted.

Local pastors gather with female residents at the Thyolo prison in southern Malawi. (Contributed photo)

In his work of introducing the Adopt-A-Prison concept in the in Thyolo female prison, Chaplain Kondowe is assisted by Lyca Mhone, who is part of the CCAP, Blantyre Synod prison outreach team and a highly dedicated prison minister.

Mhone says, My calling is to bring hope to the ladies in prison through Bible studies, preaching, counseling and connecting with lawyers, as well as speaking with correction officers when there are issues. In the prison there is always a call for clothing, soap, and sanitary pads. Any outreach to these sisters from abroad in will be a true blessing.”

in June of this year, Chaplain Kondowe and Mhone organized a meeting with the prison’s resident population and local worship leaders, encouraging them to take an active role in prison ministry.

Overall, the meeting served as a platform to reveal to pastors the positive impact they can have on the lives of the incarcerated. By fostering a culture of compassion, understanding and support, pastors can contribute significantly to the rehabilitation and well-being of those behind prison walls.

This first meeting was highly successful and follow-up meetings with pastors as well as local chiefs and government officials are scheduled, so the community can be fully sensitized to the Adopt-A-Prison potential and the specific action steps developed.

These encouraging developments in the women’s prison demonstrate the forward-thinking stance of the Malawi Prison Service, which is planning to implement a major restorative justice and peacebuilding program in its prisons. On a broader level this confirms a general trend of prison reform initiatives across the African continent, which was identified during the Pan Africa CURE Conference in Kenya in May 2023. This momentum for reform brings new positive energy to the age-old argument about punishment versus correction, hardship versus rehabilitation, unforgiveness versus redemption.

Local pastors are pictured outside the Thyolo female prison. Standing from right are Chaplain Brian Natro Kondowe and Prison Outreach Coordinator Lyca Mhone. (Contributed photo)

Most African countries still operate under punitive correctional systems introduced by colonial powers, while in African cultures, traditional ways of dealing with offenders are diverse and deeply rooted in the social, spiritual, and communal fabric of each society. These methods emphasize restoration, reconciliation, and the reintegration of the offender back into the community.

Such approaches are in sync with current global interfaith and spiritual movements and for many can be summarized in the universal moral values of the Golden Rule, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)

In an era where human undertakings are accelerating at an alarming rate, the Golden Rule serves as a powerful ethical framework. It encourages empathy, fairness, and a sense of shared responsibility, all of which are crucial for fostering a sustainable and harmonious coexistence.

The significant efforts of Malawi and other African countries in prison reform and the benefits of the Adopt-A-Prison concept to their long list of social needs is highly commendable and something to be admired and supported. The determination to move mountains has now advanced from lifting small stones to moving large boulders. With encouragement, support and prayers from Individuals and organizations abroad, the mountain cannot long resist moving.

The Rev. Dr. Hans Hallundbaek, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a co-founder of both Rehabilitation through the Arts and the Interfaith Prison Partnership, an outreach of Hudson River Presbytery. He is an adjunct instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Marist College. He lives in Katonah, New York.

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