Yesterday I got the rare opportunity to visit one of the most dreaded prison establishments in Kenya, Kamiti Maximum Security Prison alongside my colleague Sarah Musau who has a background in Criminal Justice. This visit was unique in a way since I had never stepped into any prison facility in the country despite my three decades plus existence in our motherland!
Being an Ashoka Fellow, I had an opportunity to meet Vickie Wambua who is the founder of Nafisika Trust, an indigenous organization working in various correctional facilities in the country; doing incredible work that led to her election to join the 3,000 plus family of Ashoka Fellows globally.
Vickie and I have been engaged in talks on how our two organizations can collaborate to reach out to a section of “Guests of the State” who have often been left out in any projects being carried out in prisons. Both of us did not have the requisite information on what would be needed or the kind of needs offenders with special needs would have, but we were sure that offenders with special needs existed in our correctional facilities even though Vickie had not worked with them directly.
The appointment was made by Vickie and off we went! The guards were generally friendly and we were received by the Incharge officer responsible for Prisoners welfare who guided us in (a team of five including Vickie`s colleagues). It was safe to leave everything in the car and only carry along an identification card since no one is allowed to enter the premise carrying any device or money.
After registering at the reception, we left our identification cards and took visitors card but before we could proceed; it is a requirement that you see the Overall Incharge Officer of the whole prison since our visit was organizational so that he can understand your objectives before giving a go-ahead. His office is upstairs and there are no lifts, so the officer who received us quickly realized and went up to the office and requested the Incharge (his boss) to come down and have a conversation with us.
This worked pretty well and he even identified Nafisika Trust as one of their partners meaning we weren`t strangers! I figured, the power of partnerships was at play!
Our team was led inside the prison and as we walked to a designated place where an arrangement had been made for us to meet a group of offenders with special needs, we passed other offenders who were engaged in recording a music scene under the watchful eye of the warders while others were busy cleaning the compound.
After an introduction to a group of 25 offenders with special needs, we explained to them our mission to the prison and begun a conversation that took two hours assisted with another officer who works directly with the group on a daily basis and seemed to be liked by this particular group; atleast from what we could observe!
Everyone told us what made them to be the quest of the State and how long they had served their sentences after conviction. It was striking to learn that there are people who have been there for more than 25 years and counting and majority of them serving condemned sentences (death) while others were serving life imprisonment, few waiting for their appeals to be heard and lucky ones having few years before they are released on completing their sentences.
In our discussions, it was apparent that majority of those we met got a disability while they were in prison. Some of the disabilities had either resulted from lack of medication for various illnesses, not honouring doctor’s appointments for treatment while in prison due to bureaucratic nature of the prison and accidents.
The offenders with special needs are often isolated and therefore, do not take part in majority of activities being carried out in the prison. They shared that their routine is to come out of their confinement rooms, bask in the sun for the allowed duration and then go back. This makes them go into depression.
There are those who really needed a wheelchair to move around and that is the one request they would wish we take from them, while those who are blind really needed a white cane to navigate around the prison when need be. This group was happy just to have us go to prison specifically to talk with them; they told us that no one visits them in prison and thus the feeling of “the forgotten lot”
During prison visits time, families of the offenders are allowed in and can bring things like toiletries, medication, books and the likes under the supervision of the warders but this particular lot is often left in isolation. I sought out from the officer who was sitting in with us and he confirmed that indeed our visit was one of the kind and it will help them psychologically knowing that there are people outside the prison who can still associate with them and do care.
There was one who really wanted to be helped acquire a guitar so that by the time he leaves prison, he will have recorded his songs that he can sale to cater for his needs. Another one was ready to teach the rest how to make ornaments so that they can get an income which can be recorded by the prison official and be given to them when their time to leave reaches or if someone needs medication, they can use the same income earned from such sales.
Our observation was that, they both wanted something to do while in the prison so that they can keep their brains engaged and avoid slumping into depression. We were encouraged by the officials if we can periodically organize to have other persons with disabilities go and speak with them because this is part of the prison reform efforts which is meant to make a prison as a place for correction and not condemnation.
Our time had ended and just as we were finishing, a bell rang and we saw other prisoners getting into their “cages” and it was time to say goodbye, one of them volunteered to pray while their leader (the one who has stayed there long enough and can be identified by a different uniform he wore) gave a vote of thanks and encouraged us to visit again and again. We did promise to be back and the officer incharge of their welfare will be writing to us with specific needs of each offender who has a special need so that we can discuss the same with our board to see what we can do as an organization.
But as we were leaving the BIG gate guarded by around five warders, my thoughts were with one offender who is Deaf, his story is what I will remember the most for this particular visit. It is said that he was brought in for a rape case, something that he denies but what was grave is; he was convicted without any representation, neither did they have a sign language interpreter and no one realized that this is a miscarriage of justice!
Access to justice is one of the fundamental rights of all citizens enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya; it is of particular importance to persons with disabilities who often face overt and covert discrimination in their daily interactions. The need for fair justice system is therefore essential as persons with disabilities seek redress. If one is charged with a criminal offence, he is entitled to the rights accorded to an arrested person and a fair hearing. In this case, how can you pass his judgment without hearing his side of the defense? Does it mean that when one has a disability and cannot talk in a language the judge and other court officials understand then they are guilty?
Article 13 of the United Nation`s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities indicates that: States Parties shall ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, including through the provision of procedural and age appropriate accommodations, inorder to facilitate their effective role as direct and indirect participants, including as witnesses, in all legal proceedings, at investigation and other preliminary stages. In order to help to ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities, State Parties shall promote appropriate training for those working in the field of administration of justice, including police, judiciary and prison staff.
Kenya is a signatory to this convention and one is left to wonder why this is happening in the 21st C! As a country, we must accept that everyone can be a Guest of the State and it is in the same breathe that persons with disabilities become in conflict with the law and thus what is required is to ensure that our remands, police cells, court rooms and other correctional facilities are accessible and preserve the human dignity of the offenders with special needs.
Our work is just beginning, we urge you to join us in making correctional facilities in Kenya respond to the needs of offenders with special needs.
Fredrick Ouko, Director, Action Network for the Disabled