I choose jail: Why Lamu prison is teeming with repeat offenders

The rate of recidivism in Kenya is at 47% and growing, according to data from the Kenya Prisons division.

In Summary
  • Many have gotten comfortbale with the free services provided by the state including free food,medication,protection and entertainment.
  • The situation has however caused a major swell-up in prisons across Kenya and overburdens the statet program whose objective is to rehabilitate.
Inmates at Hindi Prison in Lamu West.
Inmates at Hindi Prison in Lamu West.

Congested, badly cooked food and wearing poor quality, ill-fitting striped jail uniforms are some of the images that come to mind at the mention of prison.  

Prison is not a pleasant place and many convicts are glad to serve their terms and get out to start life afresh. 

In Lamu, however, the Prisons department has noticed a high rate of recidivism, where convicts reoffend and are sent back to jail shortly after they are released.

According to data from the Kenya Prisons Division, the rate of recidivism in the country is at 47 per cent and growing.

This is estimated to be about two‐thirds, which means that two‐thirds of released inmates will be re‐incarcerated after their release from prison.

As a result of this, crime by former inmates alone accounts for a substantial share of current and future crimes.

The Lamu Prisons department has taken note of select criminals who have formed a habit of reoffending immediately after they are released from jail.

Many accused persons will plead not guilty in court to buy themselves time to plan their defence.

But Hindi Prison superintendent Festo Odongo has observed that reoffending individuals quickly plead guilty to any offence read out to them in court.

Hindi Prison is the only correctional facility in Lamu county which made it easy to pick out the trend among a particular set of convicts who would either repeat the same crimes they were initially jailed for or would commit new ones.

“There were specific names that kept popping up as repeat offenders and we actually investigated and found out that they were actually deliberately reoffending so that they get arrested and jailed. They would rather be in prison than free,” Odongo says.

Recidivism is measured by former prisoners returning to prison for a new crime.

The percentage of recidivism is a key concern to countries as it helps in defining the efficacy of prisons in remodelling behaviour.

Lower rates reveal the degree to which released inmates have been rehabilitated and the role correctional programme plays in integrating prisoners into society.

A high rate of recidivism is costly in terms of public safety, increased government budget to sustain inmates in prisons, cost of arresting reoffenders, prosecuting and perhaps incarcerating them.


Recidivism undermines the primary reason for imprisonment, which is to serve as a deterrent to future lawbreaking.

Odongo says the sole reason for the rising rate of recidivism in Lamu is the convicts want to continue enjoying free services provided by the state.

With the harsh economic times, including the high cost of living, repeat offenders find that life in prison is cheaper than outside it. 

Prisoners are offered free medication, food, housing, state protection and entertainment and skills training, says Odongo.

According to data from the Kenya Prisons division, the majority of repeat offenders are likely to be young unemployed males who had unstable employment histories prior to imprisonment.

“Mostly it’s the fact that they get everything free of charge ranging from medical care, education, food and entertainment, among others. When they are out there, they tend to feel vulnerable and unable to meet their needs, hence, they deliberately reoffend,” Odongo says.

He says the highest number of recidivists are those suffering from chronic ailments that require costly medication to prolong survival.

“We are talking of various cancers and HIV mostly because they are known to be expensive to treat. Also, the diet one has to take while on medication is costly and out of reach for many. However, when they are incarcerated, the food and medication come at no charge,” Odongo says.

The superintendent says they have had scenarios where convicts suffering from chronic ailments don't want to hear that their release dates are drawing near.

When release day comes, they reluctantly leave their prison rooms but are usually back within a few weeks after reoffending.

“They will be granted freedom but will be back in court in a span of days, weeks or months depending on whatever service they have been missing. Some of them will plead guilty even before they are arraigned in court,” Odongo says.

Hindi prison Superintendent Festo Odongo speaks at the facility's grounds.
Hindi prison Superintendent Festo Odongo speaks at the facility's grounds.

Mohamed Salal, a human rights activist, says imprisonment leads to stigmatisation and, thus, interferes with a person’s ability to get gainful employment upon release from prison.

“So most of the time, they are frustrated when they are unable to sustain themselves and their families and easily give up. At that moment, they prefer to be back in prison where they don’t have to lift a finger yet have all they need,” he says.

In addition, he says, the time spent in prison reduces the ability of inmates to gain additional skills.


Lamu is known for fierce drug gangs that are feared by security officers and locals, including the gang members themselves.

So vicious are some of these gangs that members who are jailed would rather remain in prison where their security is guaranteed than be released back into the community where they are likely to face retaliatory attacks from either their own gangs or enemy gangs, depending on the crime.

A few convicts who don’t have the courage to reoffend flee into hiding in Kilifi, Mombasa or Nairobi.

For most, however, the easiest route is for them to reoffend as soon as they are released so they can go back to jail where they get to enjoy state protection and are guaranteed to stay alive.

“These ones feel safer in prison than on the streets and so we have observed they keep reoffending and coming back. They will mostly not say it straight out but we have noted those are among the major reasons for recidivism here,” Odongo says.

Apart from state protection, most convicts have easily fallen back into their criminal ways due to the stigma they face upon release.

Salal says stigma makes it hard for them to gain meaningful employment or even enrol in school or for training.

“In Lamu, it’s even worse with the terror issue because convicts are always doubted wherever they go. No one wants to employ them and when they do, it becomes a trap to committing other crimes and have them jailed again,” he says.

Odongo says some convicts end up back in prison because of the amount of bile and hatred they face in society.

“We have those who have been open enough to tell us that they reoffend because they were provoked on the basis that they are ex-convicts. Society has refused to give them a chance, which is unfortunate because most of them have changed,” he says.

“Some ex-convicts released end up back in the prisons, mostly because they can’t stand the hatred and so they re-offend. Society should believe that ex-cons can also reform and contribute to the community.” 


The repeat offenders may be looking out for number one, but their actions are overcrowding prisons and burdening the state programme.

Prison's main responsibility is to rehabilitate prisoners and have them reintegrated back into society.

Lamu principal magistrate Allan Temba addresses inmates at Hindi Prison. He is accompanied by Lamu assistant county commissioner Phillip Oloo.
Lamu principal magistrate Allan Temba addresses inmates at Hindi Prison. He is accompanied by Lamu assistant county commissioner Phillip Oloo.

Odongo encourages convicts to look forward to the second chance they get upon release from prison to rebuild their lives and be productive members of society no matter how hard it gets.

“The rule is to remain a law-abiding citizen and stay out of trouble and find something to do for survival. Those in need of medical care need to make use of the government’s NHIF provisions, which are affordable and easily accessible, instead of becoming a serial offender for the same,” he says.

He also appeals to the community to be receptive to convicts and give them a chance to prove themselves.

“Let’s embrace them when they come back to us and let's believe that they have paid their debts to society. Let’s give them the chance to prove themselves instead of holding formed opinions about them. The rehabilitation system works and is effective. Let’s not be too hard on them,” he adds.

In Lamu, majority of the inmates are aged 35 and below, according to prison records, accounting for close to 70 percent of all inmates.

According to statistics from the Lamu law courts, most inmates in the region have been incarcerated on drug-related charges.

“Most of those serving at Hindi Prison are young people who were either found in possession of, trafficking or consuming drugs. Any charges related to drugs are serious and attract heavy sentences. The solution is for people to stay away from drugs,” Lamu principal magistrate Allan Temba says.

Salal observes that reducing recidivism is highly complex, due to the myriad of factors impacting offender behaviour.

He however says it’s possible through various ways, including the provision of substance abuse treatment.

 “Most petty offences are often undertaken by offenders looking to make quick cash to fuel their drug addiction. Therefore, substance abuse treatment can help offenders kick out drug use, and at the same time, prevent them from reoffending,” Salal says.

He also proposes the incorporation of education into prisons.

“Many studies have shown that increasing educational opportunities in prisons significantly reduces recidivism rates. Provision of basic skills through trade and technical skills training can ensure offenders can eke a living when released,” Salal says.

Salal says most offenders say very little during their sentencing, which shows low motivation to change their behaviour.

He encourages building trust between the offender, the magistrate, probation officers and various stakeholders to motivate offenders to change.

“By building relationships and developing trust, higher levels of motivation to alter negative behaviours are developed. Also, through involving offenders in their sentencing, offender feelings of ambivalence and hopelessness are reduced and this may lead to increased adherence to any sentencing meted on them,” he adds.

He also calls for offender reintegration and support to prevent convicts from reoffending.

“Helping offenders get gainful employment and social reintegration can greatly reduce recidivism rates. This is because most offenders face stigmatisation; this social and economic isolation may drive back former inmates back to crime,” Salal adds.


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