The reputation of Kamiti Prison as a haven for criminals to operate freely and with impunity suffered another blow Friday night when three prisoners described as “hard core” walked out of their cells to prison. A poorly organized pursuit ended with an innocent woman being shot and injured.
It is not clear how prisoners who are supposed to be under lock and key deep inside the walls of the massive structure, managed to walk through dozens of metals grills and avoid surveillance cameras and corridor guards to reach the outside and escape.
Initial reports claimed that Isaac Karanja Mwangi, Joseph Kinyanjui and John Kamau Gathoni cut through the metal grill of their cell in the middle of the night, raising the immediate question of where and how they obtained the tools to do the cutting. Part of being a maximum Security prison is the constant searching and passing through metal detectors.
Even if the tools were smuggled in, the cutting of a steel metal is a hard exercise that takes a long time and produces such a hullabaloo the entire prison population including the guards would be awake to the act.
The prison official claim that as soon as the alarm went off, the guards were alerted and swung into action. How come the alarm did not go off while the prisoners were still finding their way inside the prison? Clearly there is something that is not adding up.
Prison officer released black and white mugshots of the prisoners – hardly helpful towards identifying them. It is nearly 13 years since the then Vice President and Minister in charge of Prisons launched a massive prison reform. This followed instances of prisoners dying in large numbers as a result of cholera. The reforms were driven by pressure from former detainees who had themselves graced the walls of the prison cells under the regime of Daniel Ara Moi. The former prisoners, now ministers and senior mandarins sought to improve the conditions inside prison.
Awori’s reforms were mostly cosmetic and touched on TVs and radios for prisoners, better food and improved facilities. Prison warders had their terms of service slightly improved and plans were made to construct good quality staff houses. There was talk of conjugal rights arising from the well documented cases of sodomy inside the prisons.
Even these cosmetic reforms ran into headwinds with opposition from uniformed persons. Talk of TVs and Conjugal rights seemed to irritate some quarters. Populist politicians derided the idea with their audience bursting out in laughter as if the idea was evidence of madness. While one cannot claim that Awori lost the elections because of that, it is clear that the reforms he had embarked upon stalled and then died.
While the Awori reforms were cosmetic and lacked the legal backbone to ensure permanence, they provided some relief for both the prisoners and the prison warders. The living conditions of the prison warders can tell you all you need to know about Prisons in Kenya. In a country where the President pays out billions to a group of conmen who helped him steal the elections, prison warders guarding millionaire bank robbers who are still actively running business from inside prison live in mud walled hovels with leaking roofs pinned down by rocks (see photo). How is such a man expected to turn down an offer of better life in exchange for smuggling in and out a few messages? Indeed many prison warders are now fully employed by robbers serving time inside prison.
The influence of the millionaire prisoners reaches higher up the prison echelons. Prisoners supposed to be under lock and key have been seen roaming the streets and sleep in their own bedrooms in their homes. There are documented cases of prisoners using surrogates to serve out their time in prison while the real convicts continue with their business on the outside. During the days when death sentences were executed, I have it on authority that surrogates were put to death in place of the real convicts.
Prisons have the declared objective of being correctional facilities. Instead they have become death traps where no person who enters is guaranteed to leave alive. The conditions inside are so dehumanizing that both prisoners and warder suffer the same effects of diseases and poor hygiene.
To survive in prisons in Kenya requires a major adjustment for both warder and prisoner. Warders have to accept and participate in the corruption inside the prison. They have to learn to flout prison regulations by allowing contraband and selling basic amenities including water and food. In a country where cholera is a major malady affecting prisons especially it is known that warders deny water to prisoners who cannot pay for it!
It is no wonder that prisoners want to escape.