Make a difference this season; donate books to prisoners

A man reads a book on top of a bookshelf. [Courtesy]

I like reading James Patterson books wherever I have minutes to spare around the court corridors. I am talking about the physical courts because indeed a lot of court activities have gone online. 

Patterson is the New York-bred American fiction writer of bloody strings of detective works around the crime in America and, yes, the author with his creative and bold detective, Alex Cross, can make for an interesting pastime. 

In court recently, I sat flipping through Patterson’s 'Judge and Jury' - a pick from his many series of criminal briefs - only steps away from curious but calm ladies, about five in number, seated on the court benches behind me. The court was set to resume from an adjournment.

The magistrate, before the break, had indicated he would begin with sentencing as soon as he got back. In that little while, one of the women, maybe in her twenties beckoned me and said “please let me look at the synopsis of the book. I love James Patterson.” Under my breathe; I worried less, telling myself that it makes the two of us and without hesitation passed the book to her.

I could also tell that about half of the whole lot of them, about five ladies seated on the bench enjoyed Patterson’s books since they took turns to have a glimpse at it and speak about the story line. They looked like a tutorial quorum. The one who had borrowed the book again smiled at me and went on, “I just finished reading his book – 'Alex Cross Must Die' – and I think you need to read it also.

That was good, putting all of us at par, I thought, and as sojourners for justice, the courtroom felt simple and friendly before I suddenly realsied that the ladies were all inmates from the Langata Women’s Prison.

I heard the gavel knock. The door moved and shortly, the magistrate was back in court.  I now realised that they were actually inmates since soon thereafter, their matter was called and they all took to the dock in a pensive surrender to the authority of the court. It was decision time.

The magistrate went on; “and upon consideration of your mitigation in this matter and taking into account the report by the Probation Officer as well as the Sentencing Policy Guidelines, 2016, I hereby sentence each of you to four years imprisonment. This is also in consideration of the time that you have spent in custody, which is two years.”

With that, my new-found friends would be headed to Lang’ata Women Prison to begin serving their sentences. It left me thinking how Kenya has come a long way in its treatment of accused persons in the criminal justice process and indeed those in lawful detention.

Not long ago, but a beneficial history to recollect, sentencing was rarely complete without corporal punishment. A routine day of sentencing would be accompanied by the appropriate strokes of cane backed with provisions of the penal code as well as the criminal procedure code on the respective offences.

How demeaning would it be for a father or a mother to get his day at the cane yard? This was tortious. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 5 of 2003 took away corporal punishment as a sentence for both adults and children in Kenya. Clearly, many Kenyans still have a problem with the latter despite the indignity and even deaths that children have suffered in the hands of parents and teachers who still insist on the unlawful form of punishment.

But the prison reform packages event went further. Prisons in the country were routinely congested with horribly inhumane conditions, the meals were terribly bad and insufficient. Books and reading materials existed only as bad rumours and inmates of the time, especially political prisoners detained at the pleasure of the executive, such as the late Mukaru Ng’anga, George Anyona, Isaiah Ngotho Kariuki as well as celebrated novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o decried spending their prison lives without access to news and books.

National heroes, including former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga as well as opposition leader Raila Odinga, spent time within the prison walls without books and reportedly used tissue papers to jot down memoirs within the fortresses.

Not to be left behind, former Cabinet minister from the Rift Valley, Francis Lotodo, who had been remanded for promoting warlike activities, later wondered in Parliament why he didn’t get a mattress in prison.

The sail for dignity in Kenya’s prisons was well set in the waters of the first NARC administration in 2003-2007. The winds in the sail for penal and correctional reforms, though dwindling, must not be let to wane off. The scope of sentencing and prison care in the country has improved a great deal, and the National Council on the Administration of Justice deserves hauls of medals for some of this transformation.

In the new Constitution, the bill of rights bolstered the momentum for elimination of torture practices which the penal institutions previously believed they had a duty to support. It is commendable that Kenyan prisoners today can train for professional courses, sit for various national examinations, grade tests, and give a good shot at the theory of a second chance in life. There are also charities like the Father Grol Foundation that have been working with inmates to achieve this transformation.

Back to the lady in my story. It gave me hope to know that inside the remand cells, she has been able to lay her hands on books to read. During this festive season as we throng the prisons with food and other goodies for our beloved ones in jail, let us think of donating more books to them.

And while at it; did you know that according to the Sentencing Policy Guidelines, an offender incapable of paying court fines at once can do so in installments within a given period? Certainly, knowledge makes us equal!