Editor’s Note: August 10 is International Prisoner Justice Day. We take a look in this feature and accompanying video at some of the ways the Kenyan prison service is helping to transform prisoners’ lives.
When Peter Ouko was sentenced to death for murder 20 years ago, he was sent to Kenya’s Kamiti maximum security prison, notorious for being one of the worst jails in the world.
The prison was modeled on an old-style colonial system, torture was widespread, and inmates were forced to sleep on the floor amid squalor and unsanitary, overcrowded conditions.
Ouko was sometimes locked up in a small cell with 13 other men for 23 and a half hours a day. Food was not guaranteed, and beatings were frequent.
“When I went to prison in 1998 it was pure torture, and for the first five years, I saw bad things happening,” he said.
Ouko faced an endless wait for his executioner as he resigned himself to his fate, far away from his two young children and his old life as a successful interior designer.
He also thought often of his wife. His dead wife, whom he was accused of murdering after her body was found near a police station in 1998. Ouko rushed to the site, only to find himself immediately arrested for her murder at the scene. He believes he was framed.
“It was devastating, but I felt that someone wanted to get to me. It wasn’t about getting justice because I believe that if it was about justice, we could have worked together to get that justice.”
He would spend two years awaiting trial and his children were taken away from him. Ouko later found out they were told he was dead.
Becoming a lawyer
But the arrival of one man to the Kenyan political scene in 2003 would drastically change the fortunes of Kamiti prison– and Ouko’s.
“We had a new vice president who brought the humane touch to the prisons department,” Ouko says.
That vice president was Moody Awori or as he was popularly known, Uncle Moody.
“It was a big deal when Uncle Moody came and decided to change everything. The first thing, he outlawed torture. He replaced the baton with the pen, ” recalls Ouko.
Most importantly, Moody started to treat the inmates like human beings, providing mattresses and bedding for the prison service for the first time, as well as access to healthcare.
“We used to be carried in cramped up prison trucks where we could be packed like sardines. It used to be called Maria. But when Uncle Moody came, he brought buses where inmates could sit and be taken to court, and we started calling them Moody Hoppers,” he says.
But the most significant change at Kamiti – and the one that changed Ouko’s life – was the focus on prisoner education.
In 2014, Ouko became the first Kenyan inmate to earn a law diploma behind bars.
However, studying behind bars was not easy. It meant having to balance numerous court trips, writing appeals pro-bono for his colleagues and advising them on how to make their presentations in court.
Being the most qualified “lawyer” among 2,000 inmates was daunting, but people outside the prison walls were demanding his service too.
He recalls that a Kenyan who watched his graduation on TV visited Kamiti prison and requested his help to draft a petition to sue his employers who had allowed their dogs to bite him.
The man later came back to say he had been awarded $10,000, signaling to Ouko that his education was not only useful in helping inmates, but poor Kenyans too.
The African Prisons Project
Ouko’s education was made possible by Awori’s reforms and the efforts of the African Prisons Project.
African Prisons Project (APP), a charity founded in 2007 by UK barrister Alexander McLean, works to provide education and healthcare in prisons on the continent.
McLean was inspired to set up the charity after helping to treat prisoners in Uganda while volunteering at a hospital in his teens and saw how little value was placed on some people’s lives, especially the poorer patients.
“I realized that there are people whose lives aren’t valued by their societies, who live and die like dogs,” McLean says.
The APP trains prisoners and prison staff as lawyers. So far, 3,000 people have been released from the Ugandan and Kenyan prisons after getting legal services from those the APP has trained, according to its figures.
By 2020, they have ambitions to release 30,000 people from prison through their trainees.
“Our students have been involved in several Supreme Court cases, including one which resulted in the abolition of the mandatory death sentence in Uganda,” he added.
The APP will also create a first-of-its-kind law college in a Kenyan prison, which will open in 2020.
Breaking down barriers
Prisoners advocating for other prisoners in open court, or advising non-prisoners on the law, is uncharted territory in Kenya and most places in the world.
These are the kind of reforms that have got people talking about the Kenyan prison system.
Kamiti now has a well-stocked library, industrial workshops, and the option for other students to study for law degrees.
They have organized a TEDx conference at Kamiti prison, and prisoners are learning mindfulness techniques.
Significantly, the barrier between prisoners and prison staff have been broken down.
“We try to bring everybody on board, the prison officers, the prisoners – we are a team,” said Vincent Gumbi, a warden at Kamiti prison. ” We cannot achieve when we get walls between the prisoners and the prison officers.”
McLean says he has seen a transformation in the attitude of prison staff. “We work together as a family of prisoners and prison staff, ” he says.
“We have law classes where prisoners would be teaching the prison staff law. Some of the staff we work with say ‘before I started working with you, I took joy in beating up prisoners. Now my joy is winning them their freedom using the legal knowledge that I’ve acquired.’”
The UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme, which offers training and support in Kenya’s maximum security prisons, lauded the “excellent relationship between officers and prisoners” in Kenya.
A spokesman for UNODC said it’s “significantly important for both security and management of prisons as well as supporting rehabilitation of individuals. Also, prisoners have access to family and friends as well as access to rehabilitation services including vocational training and education.”
’Crime is not cool’
In 2016, Kenya commuted the death sentences of all prisoners to life sentences and gave prisoners the right to vote for the first time in the 2017 elections.
Ouko was also officially pardoned by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and released from prison after 18 years behind bars in October 2016. His death sentence had been commuted to life in 2009.
Since his release, he has given a TED talk about his experiences and now devotes his time to defending the rights of African prisoners through his prison charity Crime Si Poa, which is Swahili for “crime is not cool.”
“The inmates who had been released, we use them to engage the community. Go to schools and speak to them… go out to the communities, we help them build cohesion. We help them build peace in conflict areas,” Ouko says.
US prisons are already looking to other countries such as Norway for ideas on prison reform, but Ouko thinks they shouldn’t be afraid to look further afield.
“It’s a global village. It doesn’t have to come from the west to Africa. I’d like to invite the administrators of the prisons in America and the Western prisons to come to visit Kenyan prisons because there are best practices to learn,” Ouko says.
“You walk into a maximum Kenyan prison, and you see people busy doing stuff. It builds hope. It brings down the level of recidivism. It brings down the level of tension in prisons. You shouldn’t lock someone for 23 hours a day. I was locked up. It didn’t help me. It made me resentful and angry,” he adds.
It is a view echoed by McLean, who says there are models of prisoner rehabilitation being developed in Kenya’s prisons that should be emulated worldwide.
He says “in Kenya, there’s a sense that anything is possible in prison.”
In contrast, McLean says, the UK had a high number of prisoner suicides in 2016.
“Billions and billions of dollars are being spent imprisoning people. Our recidivism rates are high and often prisons are characterized by hopelessness,” McLean says.
“There are unbelievable lessons countries like the United States could learn about making prisons humane places where lives are transformed, thereby making society safer because people leave prison different from how they went in.
“I look forward to seeing exciting best practices being taken from Africa to the West.”
Farai Sevenzo and Fabien Muhire contributed to this article.