Life in prison lonelier as corona stops visits, limits interaction

There are rising infections among remands, while congestion among convicts poses risk should it reach them

In Summary

• Since the pandemic broke, Kenya Prisons had to restrict staff and inmate movement

• In-person visitation by family and friends, rehabilitation programmes were suspended

Commissioner general of prisons Wycliffe Ogalo (center) with Bomet county commissioner Geoffrey Omoding (left) and Bomet officer in charge John Ngeno at the Bomet Prison on Friday.
REWARDS: Commissioner general of prisons Wycliffe Ogalo (center) with Bomet county commissioner Geoffrey Omoding (left) and Bomet officer in charge John Ngeno at the Bomet Prison on Friday.

As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds, the inability to practise social distancing, together with overcrowding, imperils the lives of many people incarcerated in prisons.

Now in its fifth month in Kenya, the pandemic is closing in on 500 fatalities. Out of the reported deaths, none has emanated from prisons.

However, they are dealing with a rise in number of cases, Kennedy Aluda told the Star. Aluda, the senior assistant commissioner general, spoke on behalf of commissioner general Wycliffe Ogalo. 


The surge, he said, is mainly among remands and some new admission convicted prisoners, whom on admission are taken to quarantine facilities within the penal institutions for the mandatory 14 days.

“All prisons receiving new admissions and all maximum-security prisons have quarantine and isolation centres. These centres have been established in collaboration with well-wishers, like the Kenya Red Society,” he said.

Shimo La Tewa, for instance, has a bed capacity of 60, and Industrial Area remand has an isolation centre with a bed capacity of 196.

One of the major problems with the prisons is lack of capacity to test all inmates due to shortage of testing kits.

Aluda said targeted testing is ongoing, but limited PPEs for their personnel handling Covid 19 inmates is a major problem, more so because they must always interact with inmates as per dictates of their work.

He also cited congestion, which has made it difficult to achieve the social distancing measure as required by the Ministry of Health. And with the spread of the virus now at community level, it poses a big threat to the prisons, especially to the new admission remands. 

Social distancing means staying at least six feet from other people, not gathering in groups, and staying out of crowded places.

But for facilities such as the Industrial Area Remand and Allocation Prison, which was built in early 1911, social distancing remains nearly impossible. 

The colonial-era facility has over 2,812 inmates, more than double its capacity of 1,288. The facility and many others are constructed in a dormitory style  with designated areas for working, religious gatherings, eating and sleeping.


A corporal from Prisons who sought anonymity said those incarcerated live in crowded cubes of 12 prisoners. Remand prisoners live in large halls that accommodate over 50 prisoners.

“You can find a block holding 12 prisoners, yet it was only designed to hold about six prisoners. Allocation also depends on admission from courts and release of prisoners upon completion of the period they were serving,” he said.


The prisoner population stands at 41,479, of which 25,911 are convicted inmates and 15,568 remands. There are also 129 Penal Institutions in Kenya, including two male and one female Borstal Institutions and one Youth Corrective Training Centre.

According to the Kenya Prisons Service, prisoners are classified according to their risk assessment, length of sentence, type of offence and age. There is the minimum, medium and maximum classification. 

Minimum security inmates often have some level of freedom of movement and some freedom to congregate. On the other hand, maximum security inmates tend to be more isolated and have strict restrictions on movement.

But since the pandemic broke, Aluda says they were forced to enforce a total lockdown for all prisons, with restrictions on staff and inmate movement.

The outbreak has also meant that rehabilitation programmes have been put on hold.  

“However, the tailoring departments of prisons have embarked on the production of face masks for inmates,” he says.


Rehabilitating and reforming prisoners through vocational training is one of the services offered by KPS. Others include formal and professional education, psychosocial counselling and spiritual guidance, health services for the sick and timely production of inmates to court.

To mitigate the spread of the virus, KPS was also forced to eliminate in-person visitation by family and friends. Prison visits often offer some psychological support, but the suspension has taken a toll on inmates' morale.

To help them stay in touch with their loved ones, the International Committee of the Red Cross has collaborated with Prisons Services by providing mobile phones.

At Indusrial Area, officer-in-charge Stephen Waihaka says those behind bars are allowed to make phone calls to their families. The facility has seven blocks, and each block has a mobile phone. 

“Since visitation was banned, we allow them to make phone calls to their family members. We have a register and whoever wants to make a call comes and does the necessary. It is limited to give others a chance,” he says.

Waithaka, however, declined to reveal the numbers of those isolated but gave an assurance that they are not yet overwhelmed.  

Decongestion was also made possible early this year in collaboration with the National Council on Administrative Justice (NCAJ). Over 4,800 petty offenders serving jail sentences of less than six months were released.

Other measures taken by KPS to mitigate the spread of the virus include: capacity building for staff, including sensitisation on the virus; operationalisation of the Ministry of Health Protocols and Standard Operating Procedures for prisons; and infection prevention control measures.

Demas Kiprono from Amnesty International commended the government for the initiatives it took when the virus broke, but said more should be done to avoid introducing the virus in prisons.

Regarding the release of petty offenders, Kiprono said they are often faced with a lot of stigma and some face a lot of rejection from their families.

He said probation officers who rehabilitate and re-integrate offenders into the community should be well funded to facilitate the transition. Medication-assisted treatment as a result of Covid should also be provided, he said. 

“It's a hard situation, the prospect of prison is scary. Let the healthcare available to warders and prisoners be enhanced,” Kiprono said.


Regarding the 12 inmates who contracted the virus in June, Shimo La Tewa Prisons boss Aggrey Akoyo said all of them recovered and none moved from asymptomatic to symptomatic.

He said they are working with the Red Cross to increase bed capacity to 120 as crimes are still being committed and they want to stay fully prepared.

When the pandemic broke, Aggrey said it was a headache, but with time the prisoners began to understand and accept the reality. Aggrey said they are being given immunity-boosting foods and they also have a nutritionist at the isolation centres.

“We were given strict measures. The inmates don't leave prison. We did what is called total lockdown. Inmates from one cell can't meet inmates from another cell to avoid numbers rising. Block to block not allowed,” he said.

In support, Aluda also said prisoners have appreciated that Covid is a global problem and the only way to manage it is by adhering to the laid-out protocols.

This, he said, has been greatly achieved by inmate sensitisation and training. “The department has welfare officers who are providing counselling services to the inmates,” he said.

To reinforce KPS' Covid-19 response, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime donated vital hygiene supplies.

Charit Kagwe from UNODC said they gave out 1,000 bottles of 500ml sanitisers, 17,500 face masks, 250 containers of 5l sanitisers, 600 boxes of gloves and 18 laptops to support with virtual hearings.

“We also helped with the methadone clinics, as many people behind bars have committed crimes because of an addiction,” she said.

Kagwe said they are planning to have proper screens for virtual court hearings and for prisoners to be able link with their families.

Covid-19 cases have been reported in Nairobi remand and allocation prison,  Manyani maximum security prison in Voi, Kangeta and Meru GK Prison, but all were inmates.

Waithaka said in Nairobi, 31 inmates tested positive but have since recovered, while in Manyani, one inmate who was transferred from Shimo la Tewa tested positive and four from Meru.

On July 18, three prison staff at Naivasha maximum prison tested positive.  The three became the first prison officers to be infected with the virus.

Edited by T Jalio

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