Good news rarely makes it to Zomba Prison, a maximum-security facility in Malawi – the world’s poorest nation.
So when music producer Ian Brennan gave the inmates an opportunity to record some tracks, the excitement was palpable. Now, the resultant album, “I Have No Everything Here,” has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the “Best World Music Album” category, a first for a record out of Malawi.
“They would do these amazing tribal songs to lift their spirits for the hours they were allowed outside,” recalls Brennan. “They’re locked up for 12 hours a day, so when they’re outside, they’re outside. They don’t take a foot indoors if they can avoid it,” he adds.
Brennan was allowed rare access inside the prison along with his wife, Marilena Delli, a filmmaker and photographer who documented the recording process in one of the world’s most overburdened jails.
“The prison was designed to hold 330 people, and has 2,000 or more at any given time,” he says. Brennan recalls that space is so overstuffed, prisoners are forced to sleep on top of each other and head-to-toe, “like sardines.”
A prison like no other
Overcrowding is probably the least Zomba’s inmates have to worry about. Brennan says that many of its residents view incarceration as a death sentence, due in part to the prevalence of HIV and AIDS.
“In the words of more than one resident: ‘If you don’t have HIV when you enter, you will by the time you leave,’” he recalls.
Female residents, he notes, are faced with a particularly wrenching decision. They are allowed to have one child under five years of age live in the prison with them, and often they have to choose between their offspring.
With constant food shortages and overcrowding, the conditions are particularly rough on the children. The topic is addressed in one of the more gripping songs on the album: “Please don’t kill my child.”
“I ask people to look through the other nominations and find a song more beautiful than that song,” challenges Brennan.
Imprisoned for being a victim
Brennan says the crimes of Zomba’s inmates were varied; some were victims of crimes and were incarcerated as a result of counter-accusations made by their own assailants. Others were serving out life sentences they received as children.
“There’s one man on the record who is there for murder. He was sentenced to life at 11 years old. He’s now 33,” recalls Brennan.
Often, he adds, individuals are imprisoned based solely on accusations, and often logistics impede them from getting a fair trial.
“Some prisoners have not had a proper review for logistical reasons, like they can’t get to court. Most prisoners aren’t bilingual and don’t speak English, but the legal system is in English, so that puts them at a massive disadvantage,” explains Brennan.
Based on what he’s seen, he’s decided to put the album’s proceeds towards legal representation for some of Zorba’s prisoners. He’s already started to make some headway; three of the female prisoners on the album have been released since its making.
“We’ve given a voice to the most underrepresented population in the most underrepresented country,” he says.