Year of Mercy Series: I was in Prison and you visited me
It is not until one has a chance to visit a prison, and listen to what inmates have to share, that one gets to appreciate the gift of freedom as a raia. I suppose a prejudicial mindset easily justifies, These are bad people, let them rot in there, and let them suffer the consequences of their actions. From a biblical perspective, more so during the Jubilee Year of Mercy – Pope Francis has encouraged all Christians to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy, one of them being to visit the sick and imprisoned. Still, I would not say that there was great motivation from a spiritual angle as I took the bus ride to Naivasha Maximum Prison last weekend.
It was an exciting opportunity to join two bus-loads of undergraduate students, full of life and bustling with laughter, they were just enjoying life. Michael Babu, the coordinator of Community Service Centre had told me not to worry, there would be many other first-timers like me on this trip. There were a few dedicated alumni, who since completing their studies and are working, still make time to participate in Community Outreach activities over weekends.
The imposing black, dark-brownish gates, of the double-walled establishment- with high tower guarding points- just like those on Prison Break Series, was not as comfortable to get into; it gave one an eerie feeling. Never mind the double-checking and frisking by armed-guards, our names were called out from the list, double counting to check all who would be allowed in; there were restrictions too; no phones, no sharp objects, no cameras; all this is normal, if one needs access into a maximum prison facility holding nearly 3,000 male inmates.
A maximum facility as differentiated from a medium one holds those convicted of the most dangerous crimes; these are considered to require very most stringent watch, furthermore, they are convicted for longer terms – more than ten years. In a medium prison facility, inmates will be allowed manual work such as cultivating in a shamba; those in a maximum prison have activities restricted to the facility.
The Universitys Community Service Centre has supported Naivashas CPA program for over 10 years now. This support entails paying exam fees, donations of CPA study packs, stationery and visits to the prison to give the CPA-studying inmates a chance to interact with the outside world. Naivasha Prison, just like all prisons in the country, are a beneficiary of the Prisons Reform Program, largely funded by the government and supplementary help from donors such as Africa Prisons Programme (APP) and Resource Oriented Development Initiative (RODI).
As we settle into the school section of the prison, one gets the impression that students visits are most treasured. A few selected inmate students are allowed to share their experiences, how they are getting on in their studies, and most importantly a word of caution to their visitors, advising them not to mess up.
The P1 trained teacher from Shanzu College, has a strong sense of humour, he tells his story with bits of laughter here and there – a sign that he has reconciled himself with his stay at the prison. He was married and a father of 2, but since his incarceration, his wife left him when he was convicted to 10 years in prison for an indecent act with a 16 year old minor. Having been a teacher, he regrets that his parents sacrificed a lot to take him to college, and now he is of no assistance to them, in fact his mother takes care of his 2 children. He strongly cautioned the young male university students, to ensure that any relationships they have, must be with those who have reached an age of consent and have an ID.
To pass time away, Peter W has taken time to study. Having been a P1 teacher, he wants to achieve better grades and has enrolled to re-take KCSE exams in a bid to join university. He is also doubles as a teacher to inmates who are in the prisons primary school programme.
23-year old Joseph, a former a student from a university in Kenya, is truly a sad case, perhaps because the group from Strathmore University are his peers and age-mates. In 2015, he was convicted to a 20-year sentence for relations with a 14 year old girl- this was during a college party back at his college. The eloquent, former Hospitality student, had passed KCSE with flying colours, life had been on an upward trend, but alas; all that is in the distant past. While speaking with university students, he painstakingly explained that he got arrested because he did not know the difference between consent and capacity where sexual relations are concerned. He cautioned his audience that the law does not recognize a minors consent. While in Prison, he has enrolled to study a degree in law, he hopes to use this legal knowledge to prepare appeals for other inmates.
40-year old James K is now a supervisor after having earned a few privileges through the privileges system used in Naivasha. He wears his blue uniform well in his tall frame. He has been in prison for the last 15 years, as he serves a life sentence for a murder charge. He explained that his getting to prison was because he kept bad company and made wrong decisions. While serving his term, he has had the opportunity to complete two diplomas, one in Theology Studies and another in Counselling Psychology. These courses he reckons, have helped him to change his attitude, reform him and now he is peaceful. He informed us that he had recently sat CPA 6 exams, and he hoped he had passed them.
KS Bhari Cup football match
The visit to Naivasha Prison is never complete without a football match the KS Bhari Cup; it is named after one of the donors of this initiative. The Prisons FC team clad in blue and white kit, and Strathmore FC clad in a bright orange uniform. It is a full 90 minutes under the scorching sun, no shade, and plenty of dust in the prisons stadium. But for the surrounding high walls, with austere measures to ensure the cheering teams are on opposite sides of the pitch with guards on standby; the tactics and shenanigans of the match are like those of any premier league match. In the end, the Prisons team won 1-0 and we walked out of the stadium crest-fallen. During the next visit, Strathmore will hand over the trophy to the prisons team.
Back to Nairobi
The return leg in the bus is less bubbly, I could dare to say, it is even reflective. The events of the day leave their mark, there is a deep appreciation of what freedom truly means. From all the ethics and philosophy classes offered at the university, I suppose, there are few lessons as profound as the visit to Naivasha Maximum Prison. The interactions of the day have left their mark, to reconnect with the Popes message of carrying out works of Mercy, during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.