Understanding offending: Prisoners and rehabilitation in Malawi


This report presents the findings of the 2004 offender and rehabilitation study undertaken in Malawi. The first of its kind in the country, the research aimed to develop an understanding of the motivating factors behind crime in the country, and to achieve some insight into the patterns of offending and the nature of selected crimes.

A range of research methodologies was utilised: pre-coded interview schedules were administered to a total of 160 offenders, semi-structured interviews were conducted with the family of the selected offenders and with the village headman of the originating village, in-depth interviews were conducted with prison officials, and finally, court records pertaining to all the offenders were examined.

A comparison of the explanations provided by the offenders interviewed in the study, combined with the information extracted from dockets and their communities and some of the dominant discourse on offending, reveals both similarities and distinct differences. As might be expected in a country characterised by widespread and extreme poverty, the majority of offenders incarcerated in Malawi’s prisons are from relatively medium to large families, many of whom battle for everyday survival. Every source of income into these families plays an often pivotal role in ensuring food is placed on the table each day. Further, education levels are low, thus limiting the opportunities open to many.

However, and in a departure from much of the dominant literature, the majority of the offenders originate in households that, while perhaps poverty-stricken, have as far as possible provided a healthy environment in which to grow. Most offenders  were raised by their own parents, and usually by both rather than a single parent. They tend to report that the examples provided by their parents or caregivers were positive, and to have had positive role-models.

The circumstances surrounding, and motivations for, committing crime can be categorised into a number of distinct groups. Most commonly, poverty or need is clearly responsible for much of the property-related crime, a fact already alluded to in previous research conducted in the sector.1 However, of concern are the levels of violent crime relating to domestic abuse, love triangles, and jealousy. This is common amongst both male and female offenders. However, in the case of male offenders, this is exacerbated by a common abuse of alcohol, a factor present in many of the violent crimes conducted by males. It is perhaps no coincidence that many of these crimes assume a profile commonly seen amongst communities globally where employment levels are low, poverty is pervasive and many are left in communities with little to do. What is perhaps more difficult to explain is the high occurrence of work-related theft and robbery. Where employment is valuable and hotly contested, the jeopardising of such security through acts of petty theft perhaps emphasises the desperate situation in which many households and breadwinners find themselves, and the pressure to provide for large families.

About the authors:

Eric Pelser at the time of writing was the resident Institute for Security Studies (ISS) advisor to the Crime and Justice Statistics Division of the National Statistics Office in Malawi.

Patrick Burton was a research consultant employed by the ISS, while  Lameck Gondwe is the head of the Crime and Justice Statistical Division of the National Statistics office in Malawi.

This research and publication was funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) in Malawi.

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