How debt landed me in prison

They say that tragedy comes in threes, and for Cyprine Omollo, the rain poured incessantly. Back home after a short stint in jail, she is picking up her pieces and giving hope to many like her.
In 2013 found myself in a financial crisis. My husband had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and a business partner I had trusted had conned me more than Sh 300,000. Due to my husband’s medical bills, I had borrowed money from many quarters and was struggling to pay off my debts. I was drowning in debt while outwardly pretending that everything was OK. My only consolation was that I had a good job as an animal technician at an internationally recognised organisation.

One of my debtors, who had loaned me Sh 300,000, was particularly on my neck. It was the same money than I ended up losing to a con. I managed to pay him back Sh200,000 with a promise to pay the rest in instalments. We even had a written contract to this effect. But he got more and more impatient and would keep threatening to have me arrested.

Whenever he got officers to arrest me, I would have to bribe them to leave me alone. My husband had got worse and I had to pay the medical bills and take care of our young daughter. I was financially overwhelmed, even though I was acting tough. I eventually got tired of paying bribes and was arrested. I was sent to remand prison and released on bond after two weeks. By the time I was released, I had been terminated from my job.

When it rains, it pours -- just four months later my husband passed away. My in-laws came and took everything that “belonged to him”. My husband had been sickly for a while, so the truth is that I had bought almost everything we had. They took the furniture, appliances, and even my clothes!

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A relative who had paid my bond withdrew it and I was rearrested and sent to Langata Remand Prison. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I would spend six months behind bars. Fortunately, my sister took in my daughter.

Never in my life did I imagine I’d sink this low. I still remember the first day I was in prison. I had been stripped naked and was waiting to be given the prison uniform when a fight broke out in the ward. Women were fighting and shouting. It was like a madhouse. Suddenly, the wardens shot into the air, which startled everyone into silence. “Is this going to be my life?” I remember thinking to myself.

I quickly learned that being in remand was, in many ways, worse than being in the section for the convicted. You don’t know how long you’ll be in remand. It is a place of limbo. There were women who had been there for almost a decade as their cases dragged on in court. After you are done with your chores, there’s nothing much to do so you can easily fall into depression. I kept myself occupied by going to the library and getting involved in any activities organised for us. I like singing, so I sang to comfort myself and keep my spirits up.

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The plaintiff never showed up in court, so I was released after six months. I found transitioning back into society very challenging, although I was fortunate to have a supportive family. Also, because I’d been away for a relatively short time, most people didn’t know that I’d been in jail.

I started applying for jobs. I hadn’t been convicted, which meant I wasn’t required to disclose that I’d been jailed. But for some unknown reason, I wasn’t even getting invited for interviews. I thought that instead of just marinating in my thoughts at home, I could volunteer my help at organisations which helped rehabilitate prisoners. As an animal technician, my desire was to help train the women in animal husbandry and poultry rearing before they were released. I reached out to several organisations without any positive outcome.

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A few months later, I had a meeting with Teresa Njoroge, one of the founders of Clean Start Kenya, an organisation which helps women and girls transition back into society after prison or juvenile detention. I was involved right from the start and I’m amazed by the impact we’ve had. I wish I had had someone to help prepare me psychologically for life in and after prison.

Now I’m that person for many others. I’m the head coach at Clean Start. In this role, I’m in charge of a programme where we empower women and girls in prison. We help restore their self-confidence, accept their situation, and have smoother transition once they’re released. We also train prison officers on how to handle inmates and facilitate their rehabilitation.

There’s a lot of stigma attached to having been in prison. When you tell people that you were in prison, they immediately assume that you’re a thief or a murderer. Sometimes you see them shift their bags, afraid that you’ll steal from them. I’d like to encourage everyone in society to give ex-convicts or those who were in remand a second chance.

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DebtPrison lifeCyprine Omollo