Prisoners wash the floor of a cell with a rolled-up carpet. Joao Silva for The New York Times

The photojournalist community was shocked to hear that experienced war photographer Joao Silva, 44, was seriously injured after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan. Nick Kristof describes Silva as “humble, uncomplaining, dogged — and always returns with spectacular images”

Joao Silva‘s website certainly displays a wealth of important stories. Alongside dispatches on Afghanistan, insurgency in Iraq, war in Lebanon, the war in Georgia, ethnic violence in Kenya and the siege of Sadir City is Silva’s 2005 dispatch from Malawi prisons.

The New York Times’ story, The Forgotten of Africa, Wasting Away in Jails Without Trial (Nov. 2005), by Michael Wines at the time was vital. As Chris Tapscott describes in Human Rights in African Prisons, the increase of 35% in Malawi’s prison population in the first four years of the millennium was one of the highest on the continent, second only to Ghana (38%).

As Wines describes, the result of overcrowding was an unsustainable system with inadequate nutrition, prisoners literally sleeping on top of each other, summary killings of prisoners deemed “incorrigible” and case files lost with the prisoner left to wallow.

Lackson Sikayayenera in his cell at Malua Prison, where he has been for six years. His case file has been lost. Joao Silva for The New York Times

At the same time, Wines acknowledges that Malawi’s prison conditions were not out of the ordinary for African prison standards and in many cases better than those in other countries. This is a position backed up by various chapters in Human Rights in African Prisons (ed. Jeremy Sarkin). Since 2005, the Malawi Prison Service has developed a sustainable approach incorporating farms to provide food and directed work for inmates. One of the largest issues for African prisons is that populations are left idle while they wait for trial, often for years.

Tapscott also notes that the Malawi Prison Service is one of the most amenable to outside inspections; the culture of oversight is not prioritised or even realised in many African nations.

From the same book, in his chapter on pre-trial detention in Africa, Martin Schonteich explains that across all nations poverty is one of the largest causes for prison overcrowding:

“In cases where pre-trial release is granted with conditions, it is again often indigent who have the greatest difficulty complying with such conditions. In many African countries, accused persons are granted bail provided they deposit a sum of money with the court. In a report on prisons in Malawi, the Special Rapporteur found that a reason for overcrowding was that ‘prisoners cannot pay bail or provide any surety.’ (ACHPR 2001c:34)”

It is worth noting the inequalities and vagaries of the bail system also plague the American criminal justice system too, and likely plenty of other Western nations. It is with some irony therefore that we might – based on Silva’s images – differentiate between prison systems. They may look incredibly different but the underlying structural shortcomings are shockingly familiar.

I wish Joao Silva all the best in his recovery (you can follow updates on the NYT Lens blog) and I am reminded that without photographers and a robust media, stories of hidden, disappeared and forgotten humans would not see the light of day … and that applies to every country of every continent.

The only food in the prison is nsima, com must leavened with beans or meat from the prison rabbit hutch. Joao Silva for The New York Times