Reforms breathe life in once notorious, dreaded jail

British High Commissioner Christian Turner (right) with Kamiti Maximum Security Prison officer In-charge Henry Kisingu at the facility. It has been undergoing reforms and now has a tarmac road. [Photo: File/Standard]

Kamiti Maximum Prison was once the most notorious prison in Kenya. Now it boasts what is surely the country's most elaborate prison legal programme and perhaps the largest number of obese prisoners.

Three years ago, Joseph Nyanjui was a hawker in Limuru town, Kiambu County. He used the earnings to support a diploma course at a nondescript college in the town.

One evening, his life changed forever when a group of women who had just come out of a chama meeting accused him of snatching a purse carrying their savings.

An angry mob gave chase as he took to his heels. He narrowly escaped death when some policemen came to his rescue. Nyanjui was sentenced to death.

He was only 21 when he first arrived at Kamiti Maximum Prison. When the big wooden doors that separate the inmates from a free world were shut with a bang, Nyanjui felt that the whole world had forsaken him.

He was filled with despair. His days were bleak and purposeless. He rarely ate. Each passing hour seemed a decade to him. Every time he stared at the ceiling, the thoughts of taking his own life jammed his mind.

As days passed, the shock of prison life began to wear off.

Whereas on the outside world, he struggled to find a meal, money for rent or fees, prison offered him new opportunities. He discovered that even behind bars, he could maintain a lifestyle, if not have a better one, than what he was used to.

"I miss my family very much. I even told them to stop visiting me. I have adopted to this new family in prison," Nyanjui told The Standard during an interview.

Although, prisoners are locked away from their families and friends, in Kamiti they have coined new friendship and relationships. They go to church, play football, act, sing, do gymnastics, play football and even study. Nyanjui joined a law class where he has acquired paralegal skills courtesy of a programme that is partly sponsored by the University of London.

Now, about six months after graduation, Nyanjui is one of the leading "legal scholars" at Kamiti. His duties include drafting legal briefs for fellow inmates who eagerly wait for their appeals and prepares their defence.

He also acts as a counsellor, giving hope to condemned men that there are chances of their appeals going through. Even if they fail, they can still return "home".

He has also taken a further role as an activist for death row convicts. Last year, he wrote to President Uhuru Kenyatta requesting that the President signs orders for execution since he doesn't want to be "fattened in prison at the expense of taxpayers if he will be executed someday". After failing to get his wishes, he wrote to Parliament requesting for MPs to amend clauses in the Constitution that provide for mandatory death sentence in capital offences.

At one point, Kamiti had nearly 10 times the number of inmates its capacity can allow. The guests of the State regularly fought with the authorities and among themselves. It has been home to "the who-is-who of Kenya's most wanted men" and its horrors fascinated Kenyans.

Comrade Inmate

Dozens of former Kamiti inmates have documented their life at Kamiti in some of the best novels ever written in Kenya. These classics include; Birds of Kamiti, Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, Prison is Not a Holiday Camp, Comrade Inmate and Three Days On The Cross. But today's Kamiti differs from what you might have read in these novels.

The facility has an education programme through which prisoners are offered books and newspapers and a computer through which they can log in and send emails. Through the education system, prisoners can complete their primary, secondary or even university education.

The once-dusty stretch of road as you enter the prison has a fresh tarmac. There are culverts around the prison, guiding water that used to create gullies through the roads.

"The prison had no tarmacked roads since independence till early this year when the Roads Cabinet Secretary Michael Kamau (now suspended and facing corruption charges) visited to launch a project," the officer-in-charge Henry Kisingu said.

When the Narc government came into power after the 2002 General Election, one of their resolutions was to improve the lives of prisoners.

"We have mattresses and blankets. The roofs do not leak and there are no bedbugs," a prisoner who identified himself as Njoroge said.

Kamiti has an active football league where prisoners compete for various honours, including the coveted Officer-In-Charge cup. The prisoners have access to bread and milk, and the company of their wives during visiting days.