As you enter St Joseph Cafasso Consolation House at Kamiti Maximum Prison, Nairobi, you are greeted by the drawing of a chain on the “Wall of Fame”. One end of the chain has been set loose. Inside the chain are stretched-out hands, symbolising a welcoming gesture. A dove sits above the chain.
On the same wall, on the outer part of the chain, are randomly-written names.
“The chains signify imprisonment, meaning the ex-convicts were imprisoned by so many vices, including rejection by society and stigma. The stretched hands suggest that we welcome them and the dove symbolises the Holy Spirit descending on them and intervening in their character formation,” says Joseph Mwangi, a counseling psychologist and coordinator of St Joseph Cafasso Consolation House.
The ex-convicts in the Consolation House are young people below 23 years and who have often been excluded from the society for their criminal records. For such, getting back into the society has been difficult as no one seems to trust them.
Most of them made poor choices and have little social or family support to re-engage in positive activities. Some have been rejected by their families and relatives. The only place they find solace in is at St Joseph Cafasso Consolation House.
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Started in 2005 by Consolata Sisters of the Catholic Church, the organisation rehabilitates young ex-offenders with the aim of reintegrating them into the family and society, after they become law-abiding and productive citizens.
The inhabitants are ex-convicts from Kamiti Youth Correction and Training Centre (YCTC), who have completed their terms but the society is not ready to accept them back.
Those successfully reintegrated in the last few years have their names written on the “Wall of Fame”. Reconciliation activities are done in the house where the ex-offenders reunite with those they wronged before they are released to the society.
Mwangi says reintegrating the young ex-offenders reduces correctional and criminal justice costs in the long-run as they are helped to engage in productive work.
“Successful re-entry is important not only for future of the offenders and their families, but also to the well-being and quality of life of families and neighbourhoods,” Mwangi says.
Gilbert Tum, 22, spent four months at Kamiti Youth Correction and Training Centre after a 2013 arrest for stealing and handling stolen property.
Tum, the fourth born in a family of six children, was preparing to sit his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams when he was convicted.
“I was in my fourth form in a school in Uasin Gishu County when my classmate introduced me to stealing. We began by stealing goats and chicken and selling them. Within no time, I found myself stealing just about anything from the neighbourhood which I could sell to get easy money,” Tum told Wednesday Life recently at St Joseph Cafasso Consolation House.
He said they could attend class during the day and embark on stealing at night. He was learning in a day school.
“I stole two chickens and kept them in my house. I lied to my mother that I bought them. I also had a pair of curtains and flowers, which I stole from my neighbour for decorating my single-room house. The neighbour reported the matter to the local village elder and after a search, the stolen property was found in my house. I was arrested and later arraigned in Eldoret Law Court where I was sentenced for four months at YCTC,” he said.
The memories are still fresh in his mind. After arriving at Kamiti Maximum Prison’s main entrance, he changed into blue prison uniform.
“Life was not easy at Kamiti YCTC. The prisoners wore shorts and I was used to wearing trousers. I was with young offenders, most of whom have not stepped into a classroom,” he recalls.
In September 2013, Tum’s term in Kamiti YCTC ended. His desire to continue with his education began the day he regained his freedom. But finding a place to chase his dreams was a complicated process. After a long unsuccessful search, he approached Mwangi and shared his plea with him.
Tum joined the Consolation House later in September 2013. He engaged in economic activities, which included chicken and rabbit keeping.
“I knew that when I go back home, I might go back to stealing and come back to jail. I also wanted to make my dreams come true and St Joseph Cafasso Consolation House was ready to support me,” he says.
St Joseph Cafasso booked him KCSE exams as a private candidate and he sat the exams at Maringo Friends Centre in Makadara, Nairobi, in 2014.
“I was doing revision on my own by reading books. I could leave home in the morning and come back in the evening during exams. I scored a mean grade of D- (minus). Initially, I wanted to join the police, but I later opted for electrical and electronic engineering,” he said.
Currently, Tum is a first year student at the Railways Training Institute in Nairobi. Brother Volker Schwill from Catholic Missionaries of Africa, based in Nairobi’s South B, is paying for his fees.
In his village in Uasin Ngishu County, Tum uses his story to help wayward youth reform. At St Joseph Cafasso Consolation House, Tum has his room where he conducts his studies during holidays. He also visits his family briefly in the village.
“We were sinners while in Kamiti YCTC, but at St Joseph Cafasso, we have a future. Life is like an examination. Many people copy others yet each person has a different question,” he says.
According to Mwangi, one must be between 17 and 19 years to join the Consolation House.
“The offender must be willing and ready to change,” he adds.
Those who join the Consolation House are given particular duties, including working in the farm and looking after the cows, chicken and rabbits. It is like a normal home since there is a house mother and house father.
“Here, we encourage teamwork. The ex-convicts are trained by the house mother on house chores like cooking. Most of them have nowhere to go after their term in Kamiti YCTC because they have been rejected by their families or society. We help them identify the vocation they can train in and take them to college. When they finish, we take them for internship and link them up with potential employers,” says Mwangi.
So far, 300 ex-convicts have passed through the Consolation House, including James Weru, the man released in December last year under the presidential pardon, after serving 41 years in prison.