Masangano v. Attorney General

2009 AHRLR 353 (MHC 2009)
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Gable Masango, a prisoner serving a twelve-year prison term in Malawi, brought suit against Malawian government officials claiming the conditions of his and his fellow prisoners’ imprisonment violated the Republic of Malawi Constitution and the Prison Regulations of the Prisons Act (“Prison Regulations”).

The prisoner alleged that the prison provided insufficient resources, including insufficient diet and food stuffs, clothing and accessories, cell equipment, and cell space. Prisoners were served one meal a day constituting 0.68 kg of maize flour because prison facilities could not handle serving multiple meals a day. On occasion, meat and vegetable dishes were available and the prisons were developing farming systems to improve the food situation. The government claimed the insufficient clothing and cell equipment was due to lack of funding and the rising prison population and that the prisons were overcrowded due to the rising crime rate. The prisons also lacked adequate ventilation aggravating the overcrowding issue. The government conceded the overcrowding issue, but claimed it was in the process of building new prisons and should be excused.

In addition to the issues of resources, the prisoner alleged that prisoners were denied the right to speak with their relatives and harassed or physically tortured in front of relatives. Further, only prisoners with money had access to communication. He also alleged that prisoners were denied access to medical care and were barred from doing certain exercises. Lastly, the prisoner asserted that prisoners only received half their share of the donations received for them.

As to the issue of insufficient food, the Court found that the minimum standards of the Prison Regulations had been met. The Prison Regulations required 0.68 kg of maize flour to be served and providing it at one meal did not violate this requirement. Even though the Court found the standard to be met, the Court went on to critique the current requirements as outdated and recommend changes to raise the standards. The Court also concluded that the respondents were in compliance with section 13 of the Constitution that requires the promotion of welfare. Since the government officials were trying to improve the food situation, they were actively engaged in promotion of the prisoners’ rights to adequate food.

On the issue of insufficient clothing and accessories, the Court held that the respondents failed to comply with the Prison Regulation standards and had a responsibility to comply regardless of claims of inadequate funding. Even though the prisoners failed to adequately show the lack of clothing, the Court relied upon statements from the Chief Commissioner of Prisons conceding the impossibility of providing the clothing required by the Prison Regulations due to a lack of funds. This holding also applied to the lack of cell equipment.

The Court found the conditions due to the overcrowding and poor ventilation were inconsistent with human dignity and thus violated the Malawi Constitution. The Court considered a series of cases that concluded that overcrowding could be inhumane or amount to torture, particularly when it led to unsanitary conditions increasing the risk of the spread of disease. In the case at hand, the Court noted that the overcrowding and poor ventilation contributed to the death of 259 inmates in about 18 months and facilitated the spread of tuberculosis and HIV.  Consequently, these conditions were sufficient to amount to a violation of the Constitution.

Regarding the denial of communication, harassment, misuse of donations, lack of access to medical care, and prohibition of some exercises, the Court concluded that insufficient information was presented to substantiate these claims. Even though the Court did not find a violation of such rights, the Court reaffirmed their importance and indicated that if sufficient facts were presented, a violation could be found.

The Court also considered several procedural issues and found the case justiciable. The Court dismissed the respondents’ justiciability argument that the Court could not exercise judicial authority in this area because the case pertains to the political concern of allocation of resources over which the prison officials maintained total discretion. The Court reasoned that the judiciary has the power to intervene in situations where people complain of human rights violations even if it overlaps with government allocation of resources decisions.

Additionally, the Court rejected the respondents’ claim that the application is time-barred and should have been addressed through alternative remedies before reaching the Court. Even though the prisoners relied upon a 2004 report of prison conditions in the pleadings, the experience was ongoing, and thus the three-month period to bring suit had not expired.

“We do not think that a court should adopt a hands-off approach where there is a complaint of violation of prisoners’ rights or human rights.” Para. 28.

“The law as is put in the Prison Regulations is not a mere aspiration which has to be progressively attained, nor is it the ideal that the law represents. It is in fact the minimum requirement. The framers of the law setting the minimum standards surely must have known that the minimum standards are achievable and must be achieved. No one should be allowed to disobey the law merely on the ground that he or she does not have sufficient resources to enable them obey the law and fulfill their obligations under the law.” Para. 43.

“In this case we hold the view that packing inmates in an overcrowded cell with poor ventilation with little or no room to sit or lie down with dignity but to be arranged like sardines violates basic human dignity and amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment and therefore unconstitutional.” Para. 52.