One of the most satisfying aspects of my job when I served as Principal Human Rights Officer at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights IN 2006 – 2009 was prison reform. This included not just advising government on penal reform policy, but prison inspection to ensure respect for the rights of prisoners and upholding of best practice.
Prison inspection was particularly gratifying to me because I myself had been a guest of the state several times and I knew first-hand what serving time in a Kenyan prison was like. I had first been incarcerated in 1994 at Industrial area Remand Prison. At the time, Kenyan prisons were so congested that any communicable disease that broke out spread like bushfire and prisoners were dying at a rate of one or more a day. Prison was the place where you went in but were lucky to come out alive. Society locked you up and threw away the key leaving you at the mercy of prison warders who themselves were little better treated by the system than the prisoners that were placed under their care.
During my time at the Commission, my team and I often conducted impromptu visits to prisons around the country. We inspected the cell blocks, ate their food, conducted confidential interviews with inmates about their well being, and spoke to prison officials about the challenges they were facing looking after people society had given up on with the inadequate resources that government placed at their disposal. We then prepared reports and used them as the basis for advocacy for improvements. We also visited prisons in response to routine complaints or the need for urgent interventions following ongoing human rights violations or to deal with a clear and present danger to the welfare of prisoners.
One of the more memorable prison visits happened at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison on 17th November 2008. My wife Katindi and I were driving to work that morning when I got a call from my colleague Kamanda Mucheke informing me that there had been trouble overnight at Kamiti during which a prisoner had been killed and that we needed to go immediately and investigate. I quickly dropped Katindi off at her office then rushed to my office at the Commission.
Accompanied by our Chief Investigator, Joseph Kaberia and two interns, we set off for Kamiti. On arrival there, we were at first refused entry but we refused to leave. Soon thereafter, an officer was asked to call me in. I was to leave my colleagues at the car park as I was escorted alone to the office of the Officer-in-Charge where a crisis meeting was underway. It was chaired by a person who introduced himself as the director of operations from Prisons Headquarters and attended by the Officer in Charge, a Mr. Mutevesi, several senior prison officers, a policeman from the nearby Kiamumbi Police Station, and a doctor.
“Mr. Njonjo, where have we met before?” the Director of Operations welcomed me trying almost too hard to be friendly. There was an air of panic around the room.
“I am not sure we have met,” I said curtly being careful to ensure that I was not distracted from the serious purpose of my mission here by an exchange of pleasantries. “Could you kindly let me know what is going on?”
“Well, there was some trouble in the prison yesterday which is why we are meeting here,” he said vaguely.
I had been fully briefed about the specific nature of the ‘trouble’ so I decided to help him out, “What about Ibrahim Ngacha, the prisoner who was killed in Cell G6?” I asked. “Please tell me what happened to him.”
There was shocked silence as everyone stared at everyone else with the startled look of children who had been caught trying to conceal a misdemeanor from a seemingly all-knowing adult.
“It is not true to say that a prisoner was killed,” he stammered unconvincingly. “It is more accurate to say that a prisoner died and we are still investigating the cause of death.”
At this point, I got a call from Kaberia. “Njonjo, those guys are keeping you in there as they try and remove the body from the cells” he alerted me. “A GK Land Rover has just been driven in and we are sure that’s what they want to do.”
I stormed out of the office and and rushed down the stairs. I demanded to be taken to Block G where I was escorted by two warders to Cell 6. There I found the body of Ibrahim Ngacha. His fellow inmates had refused to let the prison authorities remove the body fearing that they would be blamed for his death while they claimed that he had died at the hands of brutal prison warders. I was joined by an officer from Kiamumbi Police Station who assured me that they would investigate the cause of death. After I took photos of the body and interviewed the eye witnesses, I was able to persuade the prisoners to allow the prison officers and the police to remove the body.
As I was walking out of the block, a prisoner shouted from a nearby cell, “Go to G36! Go to G36!!” The warders said I could not go to that cell and I told them to try and stop me. They both rushed out presumably to seek further instructions from their seniors and left me to roam the cell block unhindered.
I ascended the stairs to the first floor and found my way to G36 where I found inmates who had been scalded with hot water in the cause of the violence that had taken place the previous day. They also told me that there had been unbelievable brutality meted out against the prisoners by the warders. I went to two or three other cells and recorded statements that all seemed to corroborate the story of indiscriminate violence that had been unleashed upon the inmates in the course of searching for contraband.
At one point, one of the prisoners asked me whether I wanted to see some evidence of what they were claiming. He then produced a phone with which he had recorded the goings-on of the previous day. I viewed the clip and could hardly believe what I saw. It seemed as though the entire complement of prison warders had descended upon Kamiti the previous day. They had ordered all prisoners to strip naked and had mercilessly embarked on an uncontrollable orgy of brute violence.
After promising the prisoner to replace his phone, I smuggled the footage out of Kamiti. At the gate, we were met by reporters from all local media houses with, each seeking to scoop the rest, asking me whether I had any footage of the violence that had taken place the day before. I resisted the temptation to give the footage to just one media house. It was important that the news of brutality behind prison walls come out and spread as far as possible if the issue of urgent prison reforms was to gain traction. We therefore made copies of the footage and distributed it to all media houses.
By 1.00 p.m. the story had become the lead item on all TV Stations. It was carried at 4 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. It was picked up by the international media and the wide coverage forced the government to condemn what could no longer be denied as it was splashed on TV for all to see. The government also promised prompt investigations and committed to meaningful prison reforms. The officer in charge of Kamiti prison was suspended and six warders were interdicted following the events of November 16, though it is not actually clear that anyone was ever prosecuted for the death of Ibrahim Ngacha.
I returned to Kamiti recently this time not to inspect the facility, but to participate in a fundraiser of a good friend who is an inmate at the prison. My friend had gotten permission from the prison authorities to organize a harambee to raise funds for his children’s university education. The fundraiser was presided over by the Commissioner of Prisons and attended by the Prisons top brass.
It was a sight to behold seeing prisoners and warders clearly interacting as human beings in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The prisoners looked happy and well looked after. We were entertained by some of the best talent I have seen anywhere – acrobats and dancers, singers and actors - all prison inmates who were making the best of their time at Kamiti.
My friend is pursuing a London University law degree by correspondence while he serves his time and thanks to the fundraising effort that was supported by prison authorities at the highest levels, his children too will finish their university education. As my friend said in his speech, prison has come a long way from being a virtual death sentence, to brutal punishment, to rehabilitation, and now to empowerment.
After the fundraiser, I met one of the officers who had gathered for the crisis meeting following the death of Ibrahim Ngacha in 2008.
“What you did at that time helped us to realize that prisoners were not animals,” she told me referring to the confrontation at the office of the Officer-in-Charge five years earlier. “They are our own brothers and sisters who may have once behaved like animals; but the way to help them is to treat them like human beings and not to brutalize them as had been happening prior to that. I want to thank you.”