Efforts to improve human rights in prison facilities

Mary Kiende, former inmate at Meru Women prison with her husband James Mwende.Picture:Henry Owino
Mary Kiende, former inmate at Meru Women prison with her husband James Mwende.Picture:Henry Owino

Hellen Kiende is a former convict at Meru Women’s Prison shares her experience in the prison cells. She was imprisoned for six months for being in possession of illicit brew (metropolitan liquor).

Kiende says she accepted the charges quickly to avoid spending a lot of time in remand facing police brutality. The two days she spent at Meru Police Station cells as remandee appeared like a week to her. This was because of mistreatment from fellow offenders.

“I admitted being guilty of the offence very fast because I was the only lady among 20 men in a police cell. This scared me and I felt it would be better to be taken to a prison and serve my sentence while among female inmates,” Kiende clarified.

Kiende recalls that at Meru Women’s Prison things were no better either apart from mattresses to sleep on and buckets for shower. She complained of congestion and bad odour which was enough to suffocate weak inmates to death.

According to Kiende explained, at the time of her imprisonment, she had a five year old child attending kindergarten. She wanted to be imprisoned with her child but thought twice about it as it could deny the child access to education.

“I realized when a woman is jailed, the whole family become prisoners. This is because the channel linking the children to their father is cut. Mothers are absolutely pillars of homes as far as productivity in family livelihoods and unity is concerned,” Kiende affirms.

Kiende’s three children whom she left behind with her husband, James Mwende were psychologically disturbed. House unity and lifestyle was never the same again since the female figure was missing in the family.

Mwende says he had to double up the role of father and mother, something he had never done before. However, he admits, there was no any other option since desperate times had beckoned on him to exploit desperate actions.

Mwende says he thought of committing suicide or remarrying but all options never worked out. He consoled and convinced himself that six months were shorter period compared to others sentenced to death or for life.

“I came to realize that most women commit crime due to poverty and for the love of their families. The lesson learnt in six months while my wife was serving her jail term is to respect the roles she plays as a wife and mother,” Mwende observes.

At Meru Women’s Prison, Kiende tolerated a lot of mistreatments from both inmates and prison warders. Corruption is rife in prisons among inmate who want to be handled specially, illegal businesses between inmates and officers, bullying new convicts in prison cells among other human rights infringements.

“In jail I realised many inmates have no rights. The sick, pregnant mothers or old people are all treated like any other normal inmate,” Kiende complained. “Some mothers are forced to be imprisoned with their babies, some breast feeding yet hygiene is not observed.”

Kiende’s case is the story of how Kenya’s correctional facilities have to grapple with several human rights challenges. One of these challenges is the problem of congestion due to overcrowding. The other is delays of hearing in courts.

The main cause of clogging in cells is attributed to the slow pace in the delivery of criminal justice due to a backlog of cases in the Judiciary among other factors. Such overcrowded conditions constitute to infringement of human rights.

In many occasions, it has led to a breeding ground for other forms of human rights violations. In fact it amounts to cruel and degrading treatment of persons deprived of their liberty and who find themselves in the correctional facilities.

The Bill of Rights enshrined in Chapter 4 of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010 is the cornerstone of all other 18 chapters. In an effort to strengthening human rights of persons deprived of their liberty, CEFA (European Committee for Training and Agriculture) together with other human rights agencies carried out survey to disentangle situation.

Though the findings were shocking, however CEFA Kenya appreciates the huge strides being taken by the concerned government departments and other non-state actors. Many human rights challenges in these correctional institutions are being addressed yet support lacking.

Anthony Wambua, Assistance Project Manager, International Juvenile Justice Observatory ( IJJO) said they spent two years in at least 15 prisons surveying the situation, and a lot of recommendations have come forth.

He pointed out under CEFA, they have come up with interventions targeted towards eradicating all forms of human rights violations within correctional facilities in Kenya.

Wambua says their aim is to strengthen human rights by including the promotion of structural reforms for the compliance and enforcement of the Bill of Rights in Constitution, 2010.

“For instance, gaps involved in strengthening access to justice for all people regardless of one’s social status. “The others are the rights of vulnerable groups in penal institutions such as the sick, people with disability, the old, unique sexes, pregnant mothers and lactating women,” Wambua points out.

Wambua recommended for an overhaul of reforms among prison staff in terms of their training, housing and living conditions as well as salaries  to avoid rampant bribery and mistreating inmates.

“If prison officers share accommodation partitioned by some bed-sheet, no television, leaking roof and poor remunerations, it means all frustrations will be dumped on inmates,” Wambua stated.

He added: “There is need to look at both the convicts and warders. If inmates have large television screens, let the officers get good salary to avoid temptations of illegal businesses or bribery.”

During the survey they managed to reach out to 13 prisons, three Borstal institutions and five probation hostels spread across the country in Coast, Central and Western regions.

Mary Khaemba, Director of Prisons and Probation facilities said recommendation and gaps suggested by CEFA and IJJO are excellent for improving Kenya Prisons Service delivery as correctional facilities. However, she  said, there are a lot of improvements that have been made so far including counselling and psycho-social support in probation hotels.

Khaemba explained there are minor offenders who are usually given community work to reduce prison congestions. She also referred to Article 159 of the Constitution, on alternative forms of justice where traditional dispute resolution mechanisms are encouraged to avoid justice delays.

“There are a lot of positive changes taking place in our judiciary systems to reduce time remandees take in police/prison cells,” Khaemba stated. She added: “Also there are inmates who are released based on their track record reforms and presidential pardons all aimed at promoting human rights.”

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