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Two weeks ago, my opinion on the sentencing of Ruth Kamande to death generated a storm among readers of this column. The arguments provoked my curiosity. This week, I revisit the issues they raise and the history and current state of our prisons.

Unsurprisingly like the death penalty, prisons are not indigenous African institutions. Before the colonials descended on us, we emphasized compensation and redress, not incarceration. Prisons came with slavery and colonialism. Kenya’s first prison The Nairobi Remand and Allocation Prison and the Kenya Prisons Services were established in 1911. Prisons locked up petty criminals, the mentally ill, murderers and freedom fighters with little distinction between them. It was not until the 1990s, that public outcry over overcrowding, torture and inhumane treatment of offenders triggered real reforms.

Ruth’s sentencing on July 19 has generated four distinct arguments for the deathpenalty. Some argued that those like Amnesty who called for the commuting of her sentence were being swayed by her beauty queen status. Violent criminals deserve violent deaths, life imprisonment is costly, and in any case, our prisons are not capable of rehabilitating violent criminals. These arguments are at the heart of the national conversation on the abolition of death penalty.

With her sentence, Ruth joins at least 799 inmates who sit in a waiting room for death. Most of them are male, under the age of 35 and from poor backgrounds. Supreme Court Judge Thurgood Marshall’s words, “the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the underprivileged member of society” applies as much to American society as our own. 

The “eye for an eye” and punishment by death argument is not carried by the weight of evidence either here or in other countries. Despite commuting 6,474 death sentences to life imprisonment, our homicide rate has been coming down in the last five years. Reduced death sentencing in India has not seen an increase in violent crimes like murder. In fact, the murder rate has fallen by half. The cost of keeping inmates on deathrow intrigued me. What does it cost? Apparently, about Sh240 a day per prisoner.

The argument that prisons services have no correctional power ignores the last 18 years of reforms. Prisons services have moved away from the punitive approach introduced and since abandoned by the British. Informed by the Constitution, a human rights approach is slowly taking root. The approach embraces an open-door policy for visitors, psychiatric assessment and support, income earning opportunities and less congestion. There is also legal awareness and legal aid, remote parenting and leadership.

These reforms have produced men like Peter Ouko and Wilson Kinyua. Peter was sentenced to death in 2001 for a murder he maintains to this day he did not commit. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by President Kibaki and in 2016, Peter was released with a law diploma. He now runs an innovative Crime si Poa organisation targeting young men. Wilson is still in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. He is a skillful paralegal and has represented himself and others in our Constitutional Court. Their redemption is as much a testimony of their own choices as to disruptive leaders like Senior Deputy Commissioner Wanini Keriri, former Vice President Moody Awori, the African Prisons Project, Langata Legal Aid Centre and others. Slowly, they are transforming punitive strategies, state secrecy and public disinterest. 

Much more is still needed to create consistent corrective standards across our prisons. Machakos remains congested and there is not enough legal aid and representation in Garissa for instance. However, we must keep pace with the changes. Two weeks before International Prisoners Justice Day on August 15, Catholic Pope Francis declared the deathpenalty inadmissible in any and allcircumstances two days ago. Based also on the arguments above, I for one, agree with him.

 - The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director.  Twitter: @irunguhoughton

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