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Breaking away from prisons of inhumanity

By -Frankline Sunday | June 10th 2013

By Frankline Sunday

Human rights abuse, poor nutrition, corruption, rape, torture, prison breaks and sometimes murder are some of the hallmarks attributed to the Kenyan penal system

For the most part, Kenyan prisoners are a forgotten lot. Save for mobile money transfer fraud and the occasional prison breaks as well as the inhumanly treatment meted out on them, few Kenyans have a clue that there are more than 88,000 men and women languishing in the country’s penal institutions.

According to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the number of incarcerated men and women in the country per 100,000 currently stands at 250. Four out of ten inmates in the country are remandees awaiting trial and 42 per cent of the total number of prisoners are women.

The country’s 87 prisons are said to contain over 343 per cent their original capacity.

Human rights abuse, poor nutrition, corruption, rape, torture and sometimes murder are some of the hallmarks attributed to the Kenyan prison system that includes the prisoners and waders.

Not-surprisingly, Kenya’s brutal and squalid prison tradition can be traced back to the pre-colonial era, when the use of prisons as a means of forcing submission was an accepted practice.

Mitchel Roth, in his book Prisons and Prison Systems: A Global Encyclopedia gives a brief history of the Kenyan prison system.

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Prison board

The first real form of administrative and legislative groundwork for the establishment of a prison system in the country is said to be in 1911 when the colonial British administration set up the autonomous Prison Board, which was tasked to administer the various penal institutions.

Roth notes that at this time, there were about 30 penitentiaries, which were classified according to sentences. Two prisons were devoted to incarcerating individuals with terms of more than three years’ imprisonment. Five were dedicated to those having medium sentences ranging six months to three years, 23 district prisons were said to hold short-time crooks.

By the mid-thirties, Kenya is said to have had thirty prisons, 23 of these were district prisons and by 1941, the prison population was at 36,000.

Ten years later, this number shot up to 55,000.

It is also at this time that prisoners became subjected to hard labour on agricultural estates and infrastructure works, a feature that was to become a new identifier for the Kenya prison system.

In the 1950s, during the Mau Mau insurgency, the British colonial system is said to have added 50 temporary “emergency camps” capable of holding thousands of Mau Mau prisoners.

Historian Caroline Elkins in her writings recounts that the “vast system of detention camps” held between 160,000 and 320,000 suspected Kikuyu insurgents, most of whom were men. Women and children, she says, were held separately in enclosed villages surrounded by spiked trenches and barbed wire.

Kenyan renowned writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo, in his prison narrative Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, states that Kenya’s prison system was an extension of the colonial detention camps.

The post-Independence political class adopted and perpetuated the practice of incarceration and detention without trial to deal with political opposition.

Kamiti prison

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Kamiti prison became more synonymous for holding political prisoners as opposed to being a reform institution.

Using the then moribund judicial system, the Government ensured famous names like Kenneth Matiba, Raila Odinga, Koigi wa Wamwere, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Jonah Anguka graced the facility’s registry.

As part of making the punishment more surreal and discourage those that might be inclined to fall on the wrong side of the law and society, prisons evolved into hell-holes where only those with a death wish dared to find themselves.

Prison waders gained a certain god-like autonomy and came to be feared as the judge, jury and executioner particularly for pre-trial detainees or those with short sentences.

Upon assuming office in 2003, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) administration instituted the famous prison reforms in a bid to shed the dark image associated with the country’s penal systems.

Moody Awori, the then Vice-President was tasked with leading the reforms and transform prisons to rehabilitation, rather than punishment centres.

death sentence

President Kibaki released 29 death row inmates and commuted the sentences of another 195 death row prisoners to life imprisonment.

Visitation rights were improved and to the amusement of men, prisoners were allowed to enjoy conjugal rights.

Prison warders were instructed to give the prisoners food that they themselves could consume, clothing and sanitation made a priority rather than a right.

In addition to this, prisoners were given a right to education and access to gainful employment opportunities through handicrafts and even small agribusiness ventures.

However, 50 years after Independence, and Kenyan prisoners still remain in darkness. Going by the increasing crime rate and the ever-increasing number of convictees, the Kenyan penal system has not deterred crime nor rehabilitated the penal institutions.


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