Not such rough justice

Isabel Nanton

Nairobi Province’s Commandant-in-Charge of Prisons, Wanini Kireri, has adopted a new approach towards reforming criminals, encouraging other prison bosses to do the same. Improvements in the justice system are taking hold, writes Isabel Nanton

With approximately 100 prisons and 40,000 inmates, half of whom are awaiting trial, the Kenyan prisons system is overstretched and creaking at the seams. And, just like most other penal systems around the world, it suffers perennial deficits in the funding and operating of facilities.

That said, since 2002, when the then Vice-President Moody Awori started reforming the prisons system with a mandate to work on rehabilitation, there have been encouraging developments spearheaded by some outstanding, on-the-ground female leaders.

Promoted in March 2010 to Commandant in Charge of Nairobi Province’s eight prisons, Wanini Kireri exemplifies this leadership. On her father’s advice (she had originally planned on being a flight attendant) Kireri joined prison training school in 1982 where she “developed a passion for reforming criminals”, as she puts it. Practical work as a duty officer at Lang’ata Women’s Prison in 2005 led Kireri to introduce such innovative programmes as beauty pageants for inmates – some of whom, on finishing their terms, have actually joined the beauty industry.

What Kireri has found during her career is that “everyone is nursing pain”. Inspired by role models like Oprah Winfrey, she made the most of her four years in charge of Shimo la Tewa Maximum Security Prison on Kenya’s coast.  In this male world of 2,500 inmates, Kireri pushed prisoners into tidying up and taking pride in the facility, instigating programmes of rewards for good behaviour and using inmates as teachers to educate others. She also encouraged a fashion programme whereby inmates made ‘prison chic’ on treadle sewing-machines and offered basic theology courses – all with the broad aim of planning for their reintegration into the community.

Aware that recidivism revolves around poverty, Kireri’s philosophy is to provide the means for inmates to earn a living and, by giving them the ability to earn money while in jail, “break the monotony” of incarceration so as to make rehabilitation feasible. Margaret Chuma, Kireri’s successor at Shimo La Tewa, is continuing this legacy.

Grace Odhiambo, a reformer whose Master’s thesis focused on the long-term effects of the incarceration of women offenders on the nuclear family, now heads Lang’ata Women’s Prison. In 2009 she was honoured with an outstanding employee award. Odhiambo advocates favourable conditions for inmates to reduce stress levels and Lang’ata runs a remote parenting programme whereby children visit their mothers in prison to share their report cards at the end of the school term – a first in the country. Under her stewardship, partnerships have been formed with donors to provide sewing machines, computers, a library and sports pitches. Odhiambo has created an environment where inmates feel comfortable airing their grievances, and in which elderly women, expectant women and mothers serving time are given priority.

Kenya’s prison service is “achieving good results within the constraints of funding and resourcing shortfalls”, says Professor Glenn Ross of Australia’s Edith Cowan University, who has worked extensively within the country. But he urges the use of more programmes that can address behaviour associated with sex offending, violent behaviour (including domestic violence), drug and alcohol abuse and cognitive distortions, which are staples of therapeutic treatment in many countries.

Ironically, the Kenyan corrections system has been a beneficiary of the recent upsurge in piracy in Somalia’s coastal waters. By agreeing to try suspected pirates, Kenya has received support from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to upgrade some of its coastal facilities – in June 2010, a newly-refurbished Shimo La Tewa court room was completed. This has been done with the long-term goal of restoring law and order both within Somalia and offshore.

The UNODC programme draws on international criminal justice authorities like Dr Ross, who have been helping Kenya to improve its capability to prosecute piracy. Specialist training has been offered in modern investigative procedures, prosecutors have been schooled in the law of the sea, advocacy and evidential issues, handover guidance has been drawn-up to assist navies in ensuring that any evidence gathered complies with Kenyan law, and Somali language (for suspects) and Spanish and French (for witnesses) translation services have been provided.

In addition, police vehicles have been reconditioned to support the transportation of exhibits for forensic examination and facilities refitted to ensure the secure storage of firearms. Technological upgrades now allow video evidence to be viewed in the Mombasa courtroom. Whilst medical operations have been improved within the corrections’ system itself and five additional prisons have been refurbished to accommodate convicted pirates.

Some of the Somali suspects arrived at Shimo La Tewa on Kireri’s watch, where she had already integrated Muslim faith observances and introduced githeri (a local bean staple) into the men’s meals. “You know men and their stomachs,” she quips.

The human face of the Kenyan correction systems is lauded by experts like Canadian researcher, Alison Granger-Brown, whose work focuses on the efficacy of recreational therapy on female inmate rehabilitation. She says that while “inmates are damaged and hurt and need healing”, their needs are not necessarily being met by the “static security” of Western systems and she commends the “dynamic security” of the relationship-based system observed in Kenya.

Recent Kenyan initiatives include a halfway home scheme for rehabilitating prisoners, a joint undertaking by the Prisons Service and Kenya Prisons Paralegal Project, run by the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, which arranges training in crafts and carpentry. There is also now a move to hear young offenders’ cases outside the court system. Such innovations offer hope in an environment where much of the crime results from disempowerment, despair and disenfranchisement.

About the author:

Isabel Nanton is a freelance journalist and frequent visitor to Kenya


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