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Sunday, July 23, 2017

From fraudsters to industrial workers: The changing face of Kamiti prisoners

Prisoners at Kamiti Maximum Prison industries make seats for the Senate
Prisoners at Kamiti Maximum Prison industries make seats for the Senate

Located in the Agricultural county of Kiambu, Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, originally named "Kamiti Downs", sits in the middle of its own 490-hectare (1,200-acre) estates, which lie fallow and untended.

The mention of the prison scares many people, especially those who have been on the wrong side of the law.

The prison is famous to many Kenyans, bearing in mind that in the 1980s and early 1990s, many political prisoners were held at the institution, including opposition leader Raila Odinga, Hussein Onyango Obama, Kenneth Matiba, Koigi wa Wamwere and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

The prison also has a history of executions. Mau Mau rebel leader Dedan Kimathi was hanged by the British colonial administration on February 18, 1957, before Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo Okumu were executed there on May 17, 1987.

Although capital punishment has not been formally abolished, no death penalties have been implemented after the two executions.


Kamiti has been ranked among the worst jails in the country, with poor conditions and inhumane treatment. The prison was built for 1,400 prisoners but it now houses more than 4,000 prisoners.

The situation improved slightly during the Mwai Kibaki government since 2002. For the first time, some prisoners on death row were released.

Within the prison, the condemned "G" block is famed for its particularly brutal lifestyle, characterised by predatory sodomy and mobile phone confidence tricksters.

In my quest to find out what really goes on behind the prison, the officer in charge of the prison Henry Kisingo introduces me to David Ngare, one of the veteran inmates.

Ngare, a former military officer, says he was welcomed at the prison in 2004 after he was sentenced to death on charges of robbery with violence.

He said he is still alive today because retired President Mwai Kibaki’s regime pardoned him and reduced his sentence from death to life imprisonment.

"When I arrived at this prison, any newcomer would feel the hostility and brutality meted upon them by old inmates. I realised this and, with my experience in the service, made it upon myself to bring change,” Nagre said.

Ngare wrote a proposal to the officer in charge to introduce a special programme, known as the Prisoners' Rehabilitation Initiative Lobby Group.

He said he was confident it would go a long way in helping the inmates realise there is life after imprisonment.

Ngare said the programme would focus on training inmates on first aid, firefighting, small home industry-oriented entrepreneurship, arbitration and social development.

“My proposal took quite a long time because of the stages it had to go through. One day the officer in charge got to see the proposal and called me to explain the entire concept in person,” he said.


Ngare noted that after many explanations to different people, the proposal was adopted and its implementation started in 2010.

"The prison offered me some training materials to start with the first cohort of about 100 inmates. I tried my best in first aid training and St John (Ambulance) was referred to me. They helped us conduct our first graduation in 2012, where we officially launched the initiative," he said.

Since then, Ngare said, he has managed to train more than 600 inmates in first aid, firefighting and rescue.

"We are grateful that Loud Kenya came in with appropriate technology and skills to help us in the small home industry," he said.

Ngare said since then, Kamiti prison has not only become independent but also a manufacturer and supplier of detergents, soaps, natural juices and jams.

He said the inmates have been highly trained on value addition to farm products.

“We are now manufacturing soaps, detergents, disinfectants, fruit jams made from pawpaws and plums, yoghurt, tomato and chilly sauce,” he said.

Among the detergents he said they can make are powder soap, multipurpose liquid detergents, hair shampoos, bleaches, hand wash disinfectants and toilet sprays.

Henry Kisingo, the officer in charge, said since the initiative started, many inmates have changed for the better.

"We can attest to the fact that many inmates have transformed. They now perceive life with a positive mind than when they came here,” Kisingo said.

He said most of those who were released by President Uhuru Kenyatta under the power of mercy last year had just concluded the training and the facility had confidence that they will transform their societies.

Ngare said he had further extended his proposal to all prisons across the country to adopt such programmes.

"Kamiti is known as a home of fraudsters and phone tricksters, but with such engaging programmes, the inmates have no time to plot such crimes," he said.


Ngare said there are consultations with various stakeholders on how to engage the prisoners to give back to the society through reparation.

"Most of us have done things that no human can forgive. We appeal to our officer in charge to allow us go back to the society and offer our services. Maybe through this, both God and humans will forgive us," he said.

Ngare argues that there are a lot of inmates with grade 1 in carpentry, leather work, tailoring and metal work.

He said now that every county has a polytechnic, those who have successfully undergone the programme and graduated can be deployed to their home counties as teachers to offer teaching services for free.

This fact seems to be well received by even the commissioner general of prisons Isaiah Osugo, who even proposes that those who have graduated in first aid, firefighting and rescue be deployed to black spots to help create awareness.

Osugo said such initiatives will help decongest prisons rather than only waiting for the President’s pardon under the power of mercy to release some prisoners.

He said the recent programmes have broken the monotony of number plate making, leather work, carpentry and metal work.

Ngare hopes that when he dies, the programmes will live on forever to transform the attitude and behaviour of the inmates.

The convict is now serving his 13th year after he was sentenced.

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