“I want to teach society that you should embrace the spirit of forgiveness,” Roberts says earnestly, adding, “Otherwise you will live a miserable life”.Resilient Roberts, acquitted inmate who was wrongly given a capital sentence for murder.
It is not really a feeling that can be put into words; I was immediately overwhelmed by a flurry of emotions almost as instantly as I went through the gate of the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, one of Kenya’s worst and most feared prisons. I guess it was curiosity, excitement and anxiety all rolled into one.
I got to visit Kamiti Maximum Security Prison this past week, a trip that fondly awakened distant memories of my first visit to a prison in the early 2000s.
I remember staying by the gate waiting for my father to return from his visit to a family member who was incarcerated, since the guards didn’t allow children inside.
The relative passed on several months later at the Kodiaga Maximum Security Prison. Although the details surrounding his death are hazy to me now, as they were then, I remember it being rumored that he was denied treatment after he fell ill.
Even in death, he still endured neglect. The family was informed of his death several days after the fact. By then, parts of his body had been nibbled away by rats and his flesh was decomposing.
Kamiti isn’t so different from Kodiaga Prison, where my relative died, as both are maximum security prisons. The two prisons have many commonalities, from housing some of the worst offenders, majority of whom have been sentenced to multiple years in prison or are serving life sentences (some of which have been commuted from death penalties). The two prisons are also among the most severe prisons in Kenya, their images tarnished by a continuum of horrifying allegations, from abuse of prisoners by guards to subjection of the prisoners to worryingly poor living conditions and the notoriety of stubborn inmates who run con schemes even from prison.
Accessing Kamiti Maximum Security Prison
-After passing the main entrance, you have to go through two additional gates. The first gate leads you inside the checkpoint area. The second, a steely and fortified structure that is kept locked leads you into the main residence of the criminals.
-At this point you register your information. You also have to leave behind any valuable items you may be carrying, from bags and wallets to money, watches, phones, jewelry and even items of clothing considered unnecessary, like scarves. Phones are not allowed inside the prison as the guards fear they might get into the hands of the convicts. It’s a known fact, acknowledged even by some guards I met, that the inmates at Kamiti are notorious for phone scams, especially the MPESA scheme.
-The guards also don’t allow you to enter the prison with money in different denominations, explaining that it might get into the hands of inmates. You can only enter with a single Shs 1,000 note (which I guess is useless to the inmates because they can’t transact with such huge denominations in prison).
-After that, you’re led into a room where you undergo a thorough body search, just in case you are trying to sneak in items regarded as contraband. After this search, the third gate is opened, leading you into the main zone with the inmates.
NB: You get back everything you surrender when leaving the prison. However, before leaving the prison, all men undergo a face scan to ensure they are not inmates attempting to escape.
My Experience at Kamiti Prison
I remember feeling very anxious when I first entered the section where the inmates reside, just based off the idea that I’ll be confined with some of the most heinous criminals ever. It is a maximum security prison reserved for the most hardcore criminals and convicts, serving time for some of the most unimaginable crimes, from defilement of children to robbery with violence and even murder.
The area is just a large mass of bare brown ground, with a few flowers and bushes scattered at the edges of pavements and along perimeters. High guard towers can be seen from all views, even though I didn’t quite see any of them being manned.
A few prisoners stroll around the bare yard, many, in addition to their torn and worn out striped black and white uniform, donning orange sweaters and hats due to the extreme cold this time of the year.
The buildings the inmates reside in feature old colonial designs, having extremely high and thick walls lacking windows.
From the outer world, it’s hard to feel empathy for criminals, but once inside, all the contempt mysteriously wavers. The convicts all look harmless; from young men who don’t look a day over 18 walking around with pitiful, innocent faces to haggard old men with grey and white hairs, stooping postures and empty gazes, their eyes drained of soul and life.
Once you see them, you quickly forget that many of them are incarcerated in what can easily be considered as Kenya’s worst prison for a reason. Many of the older inmates are serving life sentences, some having been in prison for decades, way longer than I have been alive and will most likely die there. Others are lucky to have had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment after the elimination of capital punishment in 1987.
It gets even sadder when you remember how flawed the Kenyan criminal justice system and that half of the men doing time may have been wrongly imprisoned, probably fixed to save the real offenders, imprisoned because they couldn’t afford proper legal representation or because their appeals have stalled for years, even decades due to slow and inefficient judicial processes.
I visited Kamiti Maximum Prison for the graduation of 84 inmates from Kamiti and 10 others from the Thika GK Prison. The men were graduating from two programs, one of which was a months-long theological course.
For many of the men, nothing lies ahead, except the dispiriting realization that only death will free them from the harsh shackles of prison.
But as the 94 prisoners graduated from the Mind Education Program and a theology course offered by the Manahaim Bible College last week, draped in navy blue graduation gowns and their heads crowned by graduation caps, surrounded by their fellow inmates and some by family members, it was evident that although imprisoned, their spirit is very much alive.
With the graduation, some of the inmates were also ordained as pastors, a feat they never thought possible when they were sentenced years ago, technically marking the end of life for them.
Eliud Miano, 63—Serving a life sentence for child defilement. So far, he has been detained at Kamiti Prison for eight years.
Eight years ago, when the judge declared that Eliud Miano would live out the rest of his life in prison for defilement, he thought his life was over.
“I lost hope. I thought about how I would die in prison,” he boldly says. Now aged 63 and completing his eighth year at the Kamiti Maximum Prison, Miano is strangely filled with an abundance of hope and positivity.
More than anything, he harbors exceedingly high hopes of leaving prison some day, even though he is serving a life sentence. Even as he ages, Miano says he feels that he has been granted a second chance at life, stating, “God gives second chances. I have been born anew. I have faith I will leave. I want to go preach and bring light”.
It was while at Kamiti, burdened by the thought of dying in prison for a rape he insists he did not commit that Miano got saved and embarked on a search for God. It was that search that led him to be enrolled into the program.
Patrick Omollo, 47; also serving life for child defilement.
Like Miano, Patrick Omollo, 47, says he was framed for the defilement that earned him life imprisonment.
“My girlfriend lied that I raped her child because she wanted me to give her money,” he says. Ten years later, Omollo is still appealing his sentence, but in the meantime, he says, the program’s Christian teachings have helped him overcome the many troubling thoughts that have haunted him for the last decade.
He says life in prison has been filled with innumerable challenges, from sodomy to violence, both propagated by other inmates. (I observed that as a woman, it is best to dress as decently as possible, covering up as much as possible. Some of the inmates have been in prison for decades and are sexually starved and give very discomforting looks. You’ll still get the weird looks but it won’t be as unnerving if you’re dressed properly.
As Omollo told me, these challenges have become easier to face since embracing the Christian virtues instilled by the program.
Resilient Roberts; recently acquitted after wrongly being sentenced to death for murder
Like Miano and Omollo, Resilient Roberts, a former police officer, graduated from the program and was ordained as a pastor. Roberts was sentenced to death for murder, a crime he also insists he did not commit.
“Somebody came to help a bunch of people I had arrested to escape, but an accident happened. He was drunk and could not see well. As he escaped he fell over a wall, into a cliff and died,” he narrates.
Roberts was falsely accused of murdering the man and sentenced to death by hanging, but later found justice and was acquitted.
“I was heartbroken,” he admits, but declines to talk further on the event that seriously disrupted his life.
Now the three inmates and their fellow graduates — some of whom were ordained as pastors and others on their path to becoming men of God – speak of the lessons they have taken from the program, including the importance of forgiving those whom they say accused them falsely and the power of maintaining a positive attitude even though their lives seem bleak.
The graduates also speak of their aspirations to spread the program’s teaching to other inmates, and for those like Roberts who have been freed, inspiring people on the outside. “I want to teach society that you should embrace the spirit of forgiveness,” Roberts says earnestly, adding, “Otherwise you will live a miserable life”.