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Taking a keen interest in Kenyan prisons

Insight – Why I am taking a keen interest in prisons lately

Publication Date: 5/4/2008

I have a keen interest in prisons. Two weeks ago I went to Manyani prison in Voi, intending to do some biographical research and I shall be back, hopefully still as a visitor and not as a tenant.

Quite apart from the research, prisons interest me because I think it is unfair to have a system which converts the simplest of custodial sentences into a death sentence.

If you have been sent to jail for two years for knocking off an idiot’s teeth, you want to serve your time, come out and look for more idiots with teeth.

Equally, the purpose of prison is to punish and — hopefully — reform, not to dehumanize. Joseph Fritzl, the 73-year-old Austrian father of 14 (seven with his wife and seven with his daughter) who abducted his 18-year-old daughter in 1984, held her captive in a cellar for 24 years and fathered seven dungeon children with her is a horrible pervert.

HE DID NOT TREAT HIS DAUGHTER OR the product of his incest as human beings. But that’s why, if he is found guilty, he is going to jail.

His humanity can not be taken away because those who do so  would also have to go to jail. The point is, no matter your crime, no matter how badly you have treated other people, the rest of us who are sane and civilised must still treat you like a human being. Even when we lead you to the gallows. That does not necessarily mean being nice to you.

A while back I was speaking to a young prison warder and I was a bit taken aback to learn that as far as warders are concerned, their job is not to rehabilitate or take care of prisoners.

Their job, I was made to understand, is to make prisoners work. There is such a violent disregard for prisoners’ welfare and safety among prison staff that is bizarrely inexplicable.

So long as the prisoners obey the rules, the warders will not “interfere”. This means that if the prisoners are in charge of their own meals and there are some who are not being fed, the inclination of the warder is to do nothing about it.

In any case, the relationship between warders and prisoners is one of aggressive exploitation. If a prisoner has money, I am told there is no limit to what facilities and resources he will have at his disposal. The prison system is completely and inhumanly corrupt.

As I was thinking about culture of inhumanity, I was reminded of a lecture in intercultural relations at the University of Stellenbosch last year.

In explaining the way people behaved towards each, the lecturer said that if you have lived under a system that treats you like rubbish, then you will treat other people like rubbish. And it made a lot of sense.

You will see it in the drivers and other workers of a certain group, who are reputedly treated badly. They are the rudest, most inhuman people on the road. In the shops as well they are most likely insensitive and exploitative towards customers.

The warders have been treated very poorly by the prison system. Their bosses live well and in most cases are reasonably wealthy. But the ordinary warder is treated just a little better than the inmate.

FIRST, THE FICTION OF FREE HOUSING is cruel to the extreme. There is no reason why warders should live within prison compounds.

There is no operational reason: they can work in shifts, every shift with enough people to put down a full-blown inmate mutiny.

They can be free to live wherever they want so long as they are able to respond to emergency summons within a certain period of time. The only condition would be that they are paid enough to rent housing out in the market.

BUT INSTEAD OF DOING THAT, THE GOVernment has always taken the easier route of pretending to house them without ever having put a stick of housing in decades.

So warders live in holes above or below ground, or in halls separated by sheets. They live in government provided hovels and slums. It shows that the government does not respect them, nor does it respect itself. Because a government that respects itself would say: none of our workers will live like this.

The government ought to make up its mind. It either has to put down an investment of billions of shillings every year for 10 years to rebuild prison facilities — not just housing for warders but also for inmates, including brand new prisons — or pay warders a house allowance with which to get their own housing.

I have never been to a country where the government — through a local authority or parastatal — is not involved in the provision of housing.

Governments build and either rent or sell property, especially to those who are lower on the economic scale. That way access to decent housing for government staff is guaranteed. But to wash your hands of the matter is to abdicate responsibility.

It’s not even wise because some of the guys in government will at some point end up in prison.

And oh yes, the second reason I have always been interested in jails is because I know as a journalist I am a prime candidate for their hospitality.


This world is inhabited by two kinds of beings; poor mortals like you and me and strange beings like Ronaldo who live in an alternate universe but come to visit us once in a while.

He reminds me of an ageing stud, a champion racehorse than can no longer run but is kept for the value of its genes. I thought he looked fat and weak during the last World Cup (the only football competition I watch) but apparently I may have judged him wrongly.

It is reported that sometimes in the week he dropped off his girlfriend in his home city somewhere in Brazil, then somehow found himself in a hotel room with three “women” of doubtful virtue, with whom he intended to “please himself”. The “women”, I imagine, proceeded to disrobe and revealed themselves to be actually men.

Upon which they demanded $15,000 from the burly footballer who in turn threatened to beat them to a pulp. At which point the police became involved and the whole scandal seeped into our universe.

No wonder he looks so spent on the field.

Mutuma Mathiu is Sunday Nation managing editor.

Write to the author

About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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