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Paying the Price of a Broken System

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Ms Teresa Wanjiku Njoroge for a news article (which failed to make it to publication). I thought I’d share her story here instead.

My initial impression of Teresa was a well-educated, possibly upper-middle-class woman with a comfortable life and tasteful style.  I turned out to be right about some of these aspects, but partly wrong about other presumptions.

Here’s why:

Teresa Njoroge (R) with Joss Carruthers (L), the co-founder for Clean Start Courtesy: (Clean Start)

11 a.m., Thursday, March 4, 2011.

It was raining, Teresa Wanjiku Njoroge agonizingly remembers, opting not to say more about that particular instant.

It was, however, at that exact moment, as it rained outside a cold Nairobi courtroom, that Teresa was sentenced to a year at Langata Women’s Prison, one of the largest prisons in Kenya and the principal maximum security prison for the country’s female offenders.

The incarceration was the culmination of a trial that had dragged on for almost two years, starting with Teresa’s arrest in January 2009.

“I unknowingly handled a fraudulent transaction. Funds were transferred from a client’s account to another bank, from where they were then withdrawn by fraudsters,” she explains.

At the time, Teresa was working as a Bank Premier Relationship Manager, a prestigious senior management position, at one of the biggest banks in the country.

With the arrest and subsequent events, Njoroge’s stellar decade-long career as a banker came abruptly tumbling down, as did her flourishing personal life.

After the arrest, Teresa was briefly remanded at Langata Women’s Prison, before gaining release on a cash bail of Ksh 500,000.

She was charged with theft and conspiracy to defraud her employer — the bank.

“During my arrest, the officer asked me to pay a bribe of Shs 1 million for the case to disappear. I declined because I was innocent and bribing contradicted my values,” she says.

Teresa describes recounts suffering unimaginable pain, humiliation and suffering in the two years she was out on bail, an appalling experience exacerbated by the knowledge that most of her friends, acquaintances and even family believed her to be guilty even though she was innocent.

She says, “The story was splashed all over the media. It was very painful to see. I still have the newspaper cuttings”.

“I was innocent and the prosecution lacked evidence”.

Shockingly (or expectedly if you are familiar with the prejudice of Kenya’s judicial system), the prosecution found Teresa guilty, sentencing her to a year at Langata Women’s Prison.

Life during the trial had been difficult, Teresa admits, but certainly no match for what awaited her at Langata Women’s Maximum Security Prison.

For one, Teresa had a breastfeeding three-month old baby.

“My daughter was forced to spend the first year of her life in prison, paying the price of a corrupt society,” she openly says.

Unfortunately, Teresa’s predicament as an incarcerated mother wasn’t unique – still isn’t. Teresa was only one of dozens of mothers, some jailed alongside their children, often young ones; others, single mothers, involuntarily leaving their children alone on the outside to serve their sentences.

It isn’t easy raising a child in prison, as Teresa described to me. Langata Women’s Prison is a colonial-era prison.

While I have never visited it, from my limited background knowledge, I imagine it makes Orange is The New Black’s Litchfield Prison look like heaven.  Teresa described it as filthy and characteristically rocked with innumerable problems, ranging from poor facilities, food and clothing, to improper healthcare and overcrowding.

As a maximum security prison, Teresa said, violence is prevalent at the prison, and often one of the first habits children growing up in the prison are exposed to.

Luckily for Teresa, on November 4, 2011, she was granted remission due to good behavior, enabling her to go home before the official end of her sentence.

She reveals she left prison feeling helpless – broke and jobless. She had to move back in with her parents for a while.

“I sent out multiple job applications but never heard back from anyone. I was unemployable”.

Slowly, she was able to rebuild her life, a possibility she credits to her family’s untiring support.

Teresa Njoroge during her TED talk.

February 25, 2013

The High Court vindicated Teresa, clearing her of any wrongdoing and proving that she was indeed innocent.

She filed a civil suit, granting her compensation by the bank and Kenyan government. Still, she says the money cannot make up for the horror of wrongful imprisonment and the losses and pain that came with it.

Incidentally, when she visited the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Headquarters to have her fingerprints cleared and obtain a certificate of good conduct, the officers thought she was free illegally, as their records showed she was meant to be in prison at the time.

“I learnt that I was meant to serve a four-year-sentence yet the court had given me one year. That only strengthened my belief that the arrest and trial were malicious,” she explains.

Seven years after the wrong sentencing, Teresa has been able to get a clean start, just as the name of her foundation, Clean Start suggests.

In a way, she admits she is grateful for her wrongful imprisonment. The wrongful arrest, trial and imprisonment opened her eyes to the widespread corruption and injustices of Kenya’s criminal justice system.

“The criminal justice system is so corrupt; it doesn’t help the innocent. It is simple, you either pay a bribe or go to jail,” Teresa unapologetically states.

“If you are rich and guilty you will get off easily, but if you are poor and innocent you will have it very rough,” she says.

While at Langata Women’s Prison, Teresa interacted with hundreds of women jailed wrongfully; others serving harsh sentences for petty crimes. Both of these categories of prisoners are victims of circumstance, according to Teresa, shouldering the burden of a highly corrupt system that oppresses the poor, who can’t afford to pay out bribes or hire legal help.

She also says that the courts are often overwhelmed with cases, lowering their efficiency.

The effects, she says, are a cycle of suppression against the poor.  The children of incarcerated women, who are majorly underprivileged and poorly educated, almost always end up homeless, also opting into early marriages, prostitution, drug abuse and crime. It is often not long before they too end in prison, and the cycle repeats.

It is against this backdrop, as well as the stigma she experienced and witnessed that Teresa founded Clean Start, a social enterprise that empowers prisoners and helps them and their families as they reintegrate into society.

The biggest challenge for ex-prisoners, Teresa says, is the stigma. She cites an incident where one of her former inmates, fresh from serving a five-year sentence, committed suicide at her home in Meru, setting her hut on fire and killing both herself and her child”.

She says former prisoners are not treated like they are part of society, a factor that forms another element of her campaigns.

“Experiencing these pains first-hand made my purpose very clear,” she says, adding, “I was well-educated and had a strong support system, something most of these women lack”.

Since founding Clean Start, Teresa has helped over 100 women, both current and former prisoners trying to begin anew.

PS: Teresa has been quite open and bold about her tragic experience and efforts to create change in the judicial system and help (mostly) women and children victimized by the broken system. You can watch her TED talk here.



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