Child offenders battle stigma after leaving Kenya's prison


NAIROBI, KENYA: Eighteen-year-old Martin Bosire* has a dark secret he hopes no one outside his family will ever find out: He is a former inmate of a youth prison.

At a time his age-mates are leaving high school for better things, he is still reconstructing his life after being released from a borstal institution. Brought up in Nairobi’s Eastlands area, Bosire’s life took a dangerous turn three years ago when he started hanging out with bad company.

Beginning with simple crimes like pilfering (petty theft) and truancy (skipping school), it was not long before the teenagers moved on to bigger crimes like breaking into homes.

Ironically, it was one of those ‘big crimes’ that marked a turning point and possibly saved his life.

“We broke into somebody’s house in Kayole,” he says. “It was my first time to do so. My friends got away but I wasn’t fast enough and I was caught.”

Although he was then 15 years, Bosire spent a week in police custody before he was taken to the Children’s Court. He was thrown into a cell with adult offenders but would rather not talk about that experience. In court, he pleaded guilty and was committed to a borstal for three years.

Today, nothing about Bosire’s demeanor betrays his past. The tall, timid lad is currently enrolled in a secondary school on the outskirts of Nairobi, where he is said to be doing well. But that hasn’t taken away the niggling fear of what would happen should his classmates find out about his past.

“Nobody knows I was in a borstal except the head teacher,” he says. “I have changed and would never return to crime. All I want is to concentrate on my studies and go to university.” An incident in Waithaka, on the outskirts of Nairobi, in 2010 points to just how serious the problem of stigma is for child offenders like Bosire.


Two boys who had ‘graduated’ from a borstal and put their lives back on track rented a room in the area.

According to Nairobi County Probation director Hannah Maingi, the boys had reformed and were born-again Christians who spent their Friday evenings preaching and sharing testimonies with two other boys they shared the room with.

In a bizarre turn of events, a neighbour overheard the boys’ conversation one night as they shared details of their past escapades.

Convinced that he had stumbled upon a gang planning to commit felonies, he informed the police. Officers arrived at the home and allegedly executed the pair.

Witnesses claimed the boys were shot dead in the house even as they pleaded innocent and displayed cards that proved they were still under the care of probation officers. Bosire lives in fear of such a confrontation.

“Stigma from society and even close relatives is still a major challenge,” says Ms Maingi.

“Most times such children are often the first suspects whenever a crime is committed in an area even when there is no proof. This makes them feel rejected because no one is willing to give them a chance to prove they have changed. Sadly, this has pushed some of them back to crime.”

On the day we meet Bosire, he is at the offices of the Probation and Aftercare Services Department in Nyayo House, Nairobi, where an Open Day for ex-offenders and their families is in session.


The department is an arm of the Ministry of Home Affairs mandated to keep track of former prisoners. Bosire remains under the care of a probation officer who supervises how he is getting along.

He is among few successful cases though; re-offending rates for prisoners are estimated at 40-50 per cent, with more recidivism among young adults.

Currently there are only two borstal institutions in the country -- Shikutsa in Kakamega and Shimo la Tewa in Mombasa -- housing 1,000 boys.

This number is inclusive of about 100 boys at the Kamiti Youth Correctional Training Centre in Nairobi. Although they fall under the Prisons Department, borstals are specifically for child offenders aged between 15 and 17.

In a pointer to trends in the number of children in conflict with the law, prison and Children’s Department officials agree there has been increased demand for such facilities in recent years. Already, plans are underway to set up Kenya’s first borstal for girls on Kamiti Prison grounds.

“We often find it difficult to deal with cases of girl offenders that would ordinarily have qualified to be sent to a borstal institution because there is none for them,” says Maingi.

Child offenders may be punished in a number of ways that include being put on probation, being sent to a probation hostel, carrying out community service orders or spending time in a rehabilitation school or borstal in cases where one has committed a serious crime or is a serial offender.

But the dilemma posed when dealing with girl offenders aged above 15 but below 18 has sometimes seen some held in adult institutions simply because there is nowhere else to put them.

Take for instance a 16-year-old girl that is a repeat offender and has been found guilty of murder.

Such a case would not fit into a rehabilitation school (these admit children aged between 10 and 15 years) or probation hostel.

Matters are further complicated should such a girl be pregnant because there are no provisions for handling such cases within the correctional facilities set aside for children.  Probation hostels are proposed where circumstances in the offending child’s home environment would hinder effective rehabilitation, and usually hold child offenders for one year.

There are currently five such hostels in the country located in Eldoret, Nakuru, Mombasa and Nairobi.

According to the Director of Welfare and Rehabilitation in the Kenya Prisons Service Mary Khaemba the number of boys and girls offenders aged below 18 that are being held in adult facilities countrywide is about 300.

This may be inaccurate as the Power of Mercy Advisory Committee recently found about 150 underage prisoners at King’orani Prison, one of 105 facilities for adults. “The borstals have a capacity that cannot be exceeded,” says Ms Khaemba.

“Shikutsa can take 500, while Shimo la Tewa can hold 400. So even if a probation officer recommends that a child be sent to such an institution it may not be possible to accommodate them. In some instances, such children end up in police cells.”

Children in borstal institutions have their cases reviewed every 12 months with possibility of being released to probation officers to serve the remainder of the term outside the institution.  This, however, comes with a warning not to commit another offence. Should that happen then such a child would have to complete the maximum three-year stay at the facility.