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Pioneer of enduring reforms in Kenya's prison services

By Amos Kareithi | June 2nd 2021

Senior prison officer Phoebe Asiyo [second left] inspecting knitting machines at Langata women's prison 1962.[Arhives]

Long before the import of the adage “spare the rod and spoil the child” was abandoned by schools, Kenya’s justice system was such that convicts could be hanged, caned or subjected to hard labour during their prison terms.

This no longer happens. Even the vilest of criminals no longer have to worry about the hangman since the laws and the Constitution only provides for life sentence for capital offences.

The most dramatic reforms in Kenya’s prisons were witnessed when the then Vice President Moody Awori introduced a raft of reforms, among them opening up jails so that people could visit their relatives. There are also mattresses and television sets in cells as well as cleaner uniforms.

Long before Uncle Moody introduced reforms in 2003, Phoebe Asiyo had been a trailblazer. In this 1962 picture, Asiyo (second left) was visiting prison as a top official to monitor the progress of rehabilitating female prisoners.

During her school days, nobody wanted to teach Asiyo English. Mathematics too was taboo because all the missionaries at Gendia Primary School wanted her to raise children and keep her home.

But Asiyo’s father, Joel Omer Ouko, was determined to lay a firm foundation for his daughter. It is in this quest for mathematical knowledge that Asiyo sacrificed her religious doctrines to study at Kima Mission, temporarily changing her faith from Seventh Day to Church of God.

After her elementary schooling, she trained at Embu Teacher Training College and worked as a teacher for a short stint.

However, she distinguished herself after shifting to Prisons department where she rose to be the first female Superintendent of Prisons. She is remembered for pioneering the introduction of female prisons. Initially, female offenders were locked up together with male convicts.

Asiyo ventured in politics in 1979 when she contested Karachuonyo parliamentary seat, which she won and retained until 1988. She later recaptured it in 1992, but ultimately retired from politics in 1997.

From the baby steps of prison reforms which Asiyo midwifed in 1962, Kenyan jails have ceased being formal torture chambers and are now correctional facilities where prisoners leave with life skills and courses to give them a footing upon being released.

Amos Kareithi


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