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April 2003

Report unearths rights abuse in prisons

Zachary Ochieng

Kenyan prisons have become death camps. This is according to a new report by the Standing Committee on Human Rights (Kenya), a committee appointed in July, 2000 by former president Daniel arap Moi and mandated to ensure observance, respect for and protection of human rights of all Kenyans, including those in prisons, police cells and other places of detention.

Titled "Special report on inspection of Kenyan prisons", the report is the sixth special one since the committee’s first visit to prisons in October, 2000. The report was launched mid February. It is based on the committee’s visits to various prisons in the country. Before the committee was given unfettered access to prison facilities, numerous complaints received from prisoners or ex-prisoners as well as media reports on the deplorable prison conditions would be dismissed as lies by the government.

But when Home Affairs minister Moody Awori visited prisons and held a meeting with the inmates in February – the first Kenyan minister ever to visit prisons – he was almost moved to tears as he came face to face with the inhuman conditions in which the prisoners and their warders live.

According to the report, inmates are continuously subjected to cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment, contrary to human rights standards. Human rights violations continue unabated in Kenyan prisons despite the fact that Kenya is a signatory to Resolution 45/111 of December 14 1990 of the UN General Assembly, which states that all prisoners shall be treated with respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.

Before compiling the report, the committee visited both maximum and minimum security prisons and remand homes. In the course of inspections, the committee perused relevant records and interviewed different categories of prisoners, including death row inmates. Prison staff were used as a primary source of information. In certain cases where inmates requested, the committee spoke to them in private, assuring them of confidentiality of the information adduced.

The report notes that Kenyan prisons are overcrowded while the prisoners are malnourished, walk in tattered uniform, with their basic health never attended to. Of major concern is that no prison has put in place HIV/AIDS programmes despite high prevalence rates in the institutions. HIV positive prisoners are also not provided with any medication. Due to the restrictive nature of the prison structures, sodomy is rampant, thereby aggravating the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Although prisons were introduced in Kenya during the colonial rule, no efforts have been made since independence in 1963 to improve or expand the existing facilities to cope with a growing population of inmates. Consequently, 40,000 inmates are currently occupying facilities meant for only 4000 inmates. Nairobi – the capital city – has borne the heaviest brunt, with 3000 inmates occupying facilities meant for only 400. The problem of congestion has also been worsened by the existence of underage inmates. According to the report, virtually all prisons have underage inmates. For instance, in Kakamega, 22 remand inmates were under 18 years.

To document the problem of congestion, the report takes a look at some of the prison facilities visited. At the Shimo La Tewa maximum security prison, in the coastal city of Mombasa, 2329 inmates occupy the facility whose original capacity was 708 inmates. At Nairobi’s Kamiti Maximum Prison Remand Block, there are 7-8 prisoners in a cell measuring 10x10ft. The floor space is grossly inadequate especially when inmates go to sleep.

According to the report, the committee observed that in one dormitory cell, all inmates slept on their sides facing one direction, packed close to one another like sardines in order to fit the available floor space. To add insult to injury, most buildings in which inmates are housed provide insufficient ventilation and little natural light for the occupants. At Kodiaga prison, near the lakeside city of Kisumu, the cells have to be lit throughout the day and night. The heat generated by the lit bulbs make the cells uncomfortably hot for the inmates.

The report sadly notes that prisoners are fed on half cooked meals. The diet in all prisons consists entirely of maize meal, beans and occasionally cabbages or kales for both lunch and supper. Only porridge is served for breakfast. According to the report, the prisoners complained that the food was poorly cooked, tasteless and the monotony of the diet caused them to develop a dislike for the meals.

The poor diet is aggravated by severe water shortages that make prisoners susceptible to water-borne diseases. For instance, at the western Kakamega prison, there has been no running water for 5 years. Inmates have no clean water to drink or for bathing. Generally, sanitation standards in all the prisons were found to be grossly inadequate. At Kakamega prison, for example, there is only one toilet for each ward that accommodates between 75-80 inmates. Most toilets in all the prison facilities are blocked and overflowing due to perennial water shortages.

In terms of clothing and bedding, prisoners have only one set of uniform and lack beddings. The prisoners walk half naked in threadbare uniform. At Shimo La Tewa for instance, prisoners who want to wash their uniform have to improvise by using tattered blankets to cover themselves. Male prisoners in this prison are not allowed to wear underpants and the prison authorities have no justifiable reason for this degrading treatment.

According to the report, in nearly all prisons, the inmates have no access to media facilities such as newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. Besides this, visits by friends, legal representatives and relatives are highly restricted. Prison warders demand bribes from inmates and visitors before allowing a visit. Visits are also restricted to few minutes regardless of wherever relatives have come from.

More damning is the finding that torture and ill treatment are prevalent in Kenyan prisons. According to inmates interviewed, they are tortured to confess to alleged committed crimes. Some inmates have been beaten to death, for example the six inmates who were killed by their warders at the Kingongo prison in the Central town of Nyeri in September 2000.

On arrival at prisons, inmates are referred to by a number as opposed to their names, thereby losing their identity. Inmates also complained of morning searches conducted on them everyday. They are forced to strip naked, squat or frog-jump as all their possible body orifices are searched for cigarettes and other forbidden items. The practice is humiliating as it is carried out in all the age groups lumped up together.

The report also chronicles cases of cruelty and verbal abuse by prison warders. At Shimo La Tewa, female inmates are subjected to verbal abuse whenever they complain of a poor diet. They are also denied access to toilet facilities until designated times, causing them unnecessary distress.

The other degrading treatment that the report highlights is the use of handcuffs on sick prisoners. They are usually chained to their beds as a way of discouraging escape. Prisoners are also forced to relieve themselves in buckets at night and in full view of other prisoners.

The report concludes that due to the inhuman treatment meted out to prisoners, effective correction and rehabilitation is not possible. Instead the punishments only end up hardening criminals.

The report recommends an expansion of the existing facilities, provision of adequate food and sanitation, employment of qualified personnel to develop rehabilitative programmes and provision of medical facilities among others.

But there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Awori says the prisons department will soon change its name to correctional services to reflect its role of rehabilitating criminals. During his visit to prisons, Awori also acceded to the inmates’ request to be allowed conjugal rights with their spouses in secluded prison areas. Said he: "Prisoners are human beings who need to be rehabilitated. They are not social rejects bereft of any claim to the human right to love and the desire for acceptance."

And as part of the reforms pledged by the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government in the prisons department, President Mwai Kibaki in February released 29 inmates who had been on death row for the last 15-22 years. He also commuted sentences of another 195 death row inmates to life imprisonment. Besides decongesting prisons, Awori said the move also means that Kenya may soon join the rest of the world in abolishing capital punishment. The reforms have been hailed as a welcome move by human rights groups in the country.

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