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Life lessons from behind prison walls

By Antony Gitonga | September 14th 2012

By Antony Gitonga

In the big hall at the Naivasha GK Prison, keen inmates sit in various groups listening to their ‘teachers’ as they go through various lessons. The teachers are fellow inmates.

Due to lack of facilities, the inmates, many of them serving life sentences, take their studies in the same hall, which is separated by imaginary ‘walls’ to distinguish different classes. The students can literally walk from one ‘class’ to another.

This forces the teachers to try to out-do each other by shouting. To a stranger, this is a loud din but for the students, learning is taking place. And this is the order of the day at the country’s largest penal institution.

As all this goes on, hawk-eyed warders watch keenly.

A man, humped in a corner with hand holding his chin and loads of books on the table and a laptop on his side, stands out.

Peter Kamau Ndung’u immerses himself in his books but once in a while he shovels them aside to use his laptop, which is connected to the internet.

Unlike other inmates, Ndung’u is dressed in a flowing dark blue prison gear only worn by trustees and enjoys more freedom.

He freely mingles with the warders of different ranks and inmates. It is evident that he is a man who commands respect at the institution.

Two years ago, Ndung’u passed the last and highest stage of accounts – CPA part III section (VI) in a record three years, and without a single referral.

Bright future

Ndung’u, a son of a pastor, is serving life for robbery with violence, a charge he denies ever committing.

And as he marks 12 years behind bars, the 34-year-old inmate has put behind all the pain and bitterness. His focus is on a bright future.

Once again he has put the penal institution in the limelight by becoming its first inmate to take a degree in Commerce at the University of Nairobi.

A fourth born in a family of ten, he finished his secondary school in Karigu-in Secondary School in Murang’a in 1996. He scored C+ in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams that year.

In 2000, he was sentenced to death by the High Court sitting in Nyeri for the offence committed in Murang’a the previous year.

“This was the darkest day of my life. I was only 21. I was transferred to the execution block in Kamiti Prison to wait for a date with the executioner.”

But he vowed to leave a positive mark in prison.

Incarcerated and alone, he discovered that he had the most valuable resource on earth, time.

So when he was transferred to Naivasha, he started reading. Between 2001 and 2004, he took various single and group courses and passed every exam he took with flying colours.

Between January 2006 and December 2009, he sat CPA part I section I to CPA part III section VI  in Strathmore.

“I got a scholarship from Strathmore to continue with my studies, but I could not make it as I was behind bars,” says Ndung’u.

In 2009, President Kibaki commuted death sentence for hundreds of inmates including Ndung’u to life.


The following year he studied guidance and counselling at Strathmore, a skill that has been handy to him and fellow prisoners. With the help of the prison authority he received an admission letter to study, through distance learning, at the University of Nairobi. A Nakuru preacher, John Kimani William, has been paying his fees since January this year.

Two months ago, he sat his first semester exams at the university and emerged among the top students.

“I was ferried to Nairobi to sit the exams. I have developed a good relationship with my classmates and teachers at the university,” he says.

An avid reader, Ndung’u believes that God had a reason for his arrest saying that the counselling and CPA courses have turned him into a mentor to many.

“Many inmates are in denial and it’s hard for them to change. I am always there to offer the much that I can,” he says.

Due to his commitment, trustworthiness and dedication, he has his own cell and is the only inmate allowed to have a laptop and access to the internet in the prison. He hopes that his good performance will be noted and he is allowed to serve the nation as a free man.

The officer in charge of the prison, Patrick Mwenda, says Ndung’u is the brightest inmate he has ever encountered.

“Ndung’u’s desire to seek education has surprised many and we are doing the best to assist him,” he says.

He adds: “It’s psychological torture for inmates serving life as they are unsure of the future but Ndung’u has put this aside and is one of a kind.”

The principal of prison education programme, Bonventure Mutari, also an inmate, says Ndung’u is an inspiration to many.

Prison welfare officer Jackson Tumwet says Ndung’u is a role model to many including the warders. “The inmate has challenged many of us who are free as he has done miracles while behind bars,” he says.

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