The UK government’s decision to abandon its manifesto promise and legal commitment to maintain overseas spending at 0.7% of national income is a devastating blow for small charities and their beneficiaries. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the poor and marginalised, magnifying inequalities and exacerbating injustice; our work in Malawi is needed now more than ever.

Prolonged pre-trial detention

Prisons throughout Malawi are severely overcrowded. The official capacity of the prison system is 7,000 people and the total number of prisoners currently exceeds 14,000. On 14 July 2020 the first COVID case was registered in Chichiri, one of the largest prisons in Malawi. Social distancing is not a luxury available to those sharing a 6m x 12m prison cell with over 200 other prisoners. There are two showers for over 2,000 men and prisoners have no access to soap unless supplied by their families. Many suffer from TB and HIV which puts them at higher risk of suffering complications related to the virus. Access to adequate healthcare is limited. This crisis is largely due to the increasing numbers of people imprisoned in prolonged pre-trial detention.

While the Constitution of Malawi contains explicit protections of liberty, including the right to bail and the right not to be detained without trial, these protections are meaningless for the majority of Malawians who cannot afford a lawyer. Due to the lack of legal aid lawyers, around 90% of people pass through the criminal justice system without advice or representation. An estimated 75% of detainees are both unaware of their right to bail and are not informed of this right at the police station or during their first court appearance. Consequently, those accused of petty or non-violent offences, who would prima facie be good candidates for bail, are unnecessarily and unlawfully imprisoned in overcrowded and inhumane conditions. Case backlogs mean detainees spend years awaiting trial. People with no previous criminal history, alleged to have stolen food to feed their family, can be imprisoned for over a year awaiting trial when the sentence for this crime, if convicted, would only be a small fine. Moreover, case files are often lost and people are simply forgotten in the system. The Malawi Bail Project (MBP) was founded to address these injustices.

MBP is a UK-registered charity that funds and delivers access to justice initiatives and activities in Malawi. We have three core objectives: (i) legal empowerment for the poor and vulnerable through community education; (ii) capacity building of professionals in the criminal justice system; (iii) the promotion of rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. MBP delivers these aims in partnership with a local NGO, the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA).

Legal empowerment and rehabilitation

Rather than relying on underfunded and overwhelmed state agencies to protect the vulnerable, we provide detainees with the tools to empower themselves. We have produced an ‘Understanding Your Right to Bail’ booklet which is distributed by paralegals to magistrates’ courts and police stations. Detainees who cannot read benefit from the speaker systems we install at key police stations and court holding cells to play recorded audiotapes which explain how and when to apply for bail. Friends and family members of detainees can receive practical advice via a freephone Paralegal Advice Line which is available 24/7. CHREAA paralegals regularly attend police stations and court holding cells to provide free legal advice on bail issues to those accused of minor/petty offences and to assist those granted bail with identifying a surety and/or obtaining the funds for the bail bond.

Since our initiatives have been in place, over 85,000 detainees have accessed our bail booklets and audio tapes and over 2,000 people have received advice and assistance through our paralegal advice line.

In 2017 MBP partnered with Nkhokwe Arts Group, a group of ex-prisoners using theatre to educate local communities on social justice issues in an engaging way, to devise a play about bail and the consequences of crime which is performed to communities across the Southern Region of Malawi. The actors perform scenes relating to bail rights, corruption in the police system, and the impact this has on families left behind. The direct experience actors have had of arrest, trial, and imprisonment gives the performances a uniquely personal edge. CHREAA paralegals attend to guide the audience through different outcomes during the performance. Over 6,000 community members have attended these performances since the partnership began.

By funding Nkhokwe Arts performances we also provide ex-prisoners with an income and support system upon leaving prison, many of whom are targeted by police upon release and face stigmatisation in their communities.

Capacity building

We facilitate separate trainings with magistrates and police officers to explore ways of making the justice system more accessible for the poor and unrepresented. We have worked with lay magistrates, Chief Resident Magistrates, and Registrars of the High Court from all the four regions of Malawi to put together comprehensive and user-friendly bail guides, to assist magistrates in making decisions regarding bail. This guide has been printed and distributed to every court in the Southern Region and major courts across Malawi.

We also work with the prison service, prosecutors, Legal Aid Bureau and judiciary to facilitate ‘Camp Courts’, special court sessions where magistrates are brought to the prison to consider bail applications from those charged with minor offences, those whose remand warrants have expired, or where the accused is particularly vulnerable. Camp Courts are a cost effective, time efficient way to decongest prisons. Over 1,000 vulnerable detainees have been released on bail or acquitted through MBP.


As key workers, CHREAA’s paralegals have continued to work throughout COVID. At the height of the pandemic in Malawi, CHREAA reported the government were failing to provide hand sanitiser and masks for prison officers and prisoners and only provided a small number of testing kits; 112 kits for over 2,000 prisoners at Chichiri. The prisoners who did test positive were returned to overcrowded cells. In an effort to stop the spread, the government prohibited prison visits; meaning an end to the food packages brought by friends and family to supplement the small bowl of maize and beans which constitute the prisoners’ daily rations.

Following calls from civil society organisations like CHREAA, in August and December 2020 President Chakwera took the decision to pardon some pre-trial detainees and those prisoners who had served the majority of their sentence, to decongest the prisons. Sadly, the third wave of COVID-19 has now hit Malawi. Police stations are increasingly overcrowded due to the reduced number of court sessions taking place and police continue to conduct ‘sweeping’ exercises to detain large numbers of people under vague and outdated (colonial) Penal Code offences, such as being ‘idle or disorderly’. Many are now been arbitrarily detained for not wearing a mask, despite masks being unavailable and/or unaffordable for most Malawians; 69% of the population earn less than $1.90 a day.

Systemic problems in Malawi’s prison system existed long before the emergence of COVID-19, but the pandemic has served to make the need for reform even more urgent. Education on bail rights is no longer just a criminal justice issue, but a matter of public health. 


Much-needed funds for MBP are being raised in the London Marathan 2021. For more details please see:

Pictured above: Remandees and convicted prisoners (in white) at Chikwawa Prison, Southern Malawi.