Prison: the cradle of freedom?


I recently walked into my first prison experience.

I was on my way to a youth conference speak to a group of teenagers from fourteen schools in Siaya County on the impact of alcohol and drug use and abuse and early engagement in sex.

My host works for an organisation that runs project in several Kenyan prisons including the Kisumu Main GK Prison aka Kodiaga which was to hose my debut prison appearance.

I was sceptical about the prison visit immediately on our arrival from a six hour trip from Nairobi. I felt we first needed to first check into the hotel, take a long shower and a longer nap followed by a briefing session of what I could expect to see, feel, hear, smell and general experience on my first prison visit.

Instead, we drove directly to the prison. And the opportunity cost to the hotel/shower/nap scenario was a hearty lunch at the officers’ mess.  It was still different. It was ON the prison grounds. After lunch I thought we would leave but, no; the project by Faraja Foundation is INSIDE the prison and we were now headed there.

“I wish we went in before lunch rather than after. What if I need the loo? What if my stomach gives way to the nervous tension that I can now feel?”

Behind bars

As we crossed the gates that lead to the prison proper, we had our pockets checked and I was asked to leave my inhaler.

“What is this?”

“Ni dawa ya asthma and I must enter with it.” The earnestness of my statement was even more convincing than I meant it. The tension I felt could easily have led to an asthma attack. Easily.

All four of us accompanied by the prison’s Deputy Commanding Officer and the Liaison Officer, were now in the prison headed to the kitchen.

The kitchen was long huge shed the size of a mini warehouse found in Nairobi’s Industrial Area with huge furnace like pillars stretched along the middle. On them were huge cauldrons that had beans cooking in some while several prisoners sweating profusely – in their black and white striped uniforms introduced in the Prisons Reforms programme by the then Vice President Moody Awori – were stirring ugali using huge cooking sticks with handles larger than the thickness of their arms and heads the size of a man’s head. And to imagine that this happened at least twice a day. Every day. The mind boggles.

Walking through the prison yard, I was struck that these men ALL seemed to look alike with their clean shaven heads and sun scorched dark skins. I also couldn’t help feeling a bit antsy for the ladies and wondering if their safety was indeed guaranteed. They were now enclosed in a compound with 2000 men. In my mind, the worst case scenarios were fast playing out as horror movies. I will leave them there for now.

What amazed me was the sense of camaraderie among the prisoners. My main expectation, because I now see I have had several about prison life, was that I would find men downcast in the doom and gloom of the prison confines. The officers pointed out to those who were going to spend the rest of their lives in here and several more who had been jailed to terms of twenty years or more. I found it rather unsettling that these guys  could sufficiently provide an answer to that often asked  job interview question, “where do you see yourself in five years?” with a fair margin of  certainty. I don’t think knowing that with a sense of surety is comforting or creates a sense of despair.

I was taken to the classrooms and here I was introduced to the Standard One student prisoners and in the next class were to those who had recently completed their KCPE papers. It was uncanny that unlike in conventional schools where the physical difference between Standard ones and eights is obvious due to size, here they were all adults. So one couldn’t speak to the primary novices with the higher voice tones we tend to use for younger children.

There were several of those who had stretched their blankets along the walls to create shades they sat under to play board games and generally hangout.

The sleeping quarters was the next stop. Mattresses were strewn along the floor of the huge dormitories. I dread to think what all this looked like before the reforms where mattresses, I heard, were for a select few, and not in particularly good condition.

The prisoners at Kisumu Main GK Prison ranged from those serving life terms to those in remand awaiting resolution of their cases. In the IT Section of the prison, I met a university student studying pharmacy. There were 3 old Personal computers and he was helping install anti-virus software in one of them. He told me he was in remand for a case of stealing. Of all the men in that prison, he seemed the least adjusted.

I declined the offer to visit the women’s prison. This was enough for one day.

Something else that stood out for me was that these guys had everything that I need to live healthy and with integrity. They had spiritual welfare officers, social workers, counsellors and human rights officers attached to them. Call me narrow minded but I couldn’t help wondering what value these added to the life of a man sentenced to 20 years in prison let alone the ones who are in for life. The looks on their faces seemed evidence enough that these reform and renovation projects run by my friend’s Foundation was working wonders.

The tension, and anxiety and generally confusing emotions I felt as I was walked through the prison were palpable. And it really felt that the only thing that differentiated these men and I was that I was dressed differently and I was going to leave after this.

Yet, unlike you and me they cannot go where they want to when they want. I need to get over the idea that being in prison isn’t a denial of one’s humanity.

Youth Conference at Ukwala, Ugunja, Siaya County

The prison experience drastically shifted the perspective of my talk to the teenagers from Siaya County. I didn’t sleep well at all that night and I suspect it wasn’t just the heat of the weather in Kisumu.

I confess I tried to scare the teens into freedom from drugs; perhaps not an effective strategy. I was still raw. I just hope that in 20 years they would be standing at the same space I was to talk about the difference that not getting alcohol and drugs made in their lives. That they would indeed be real mashujaas because of how I had touched their lives. Modesty was not my portion on this day.

Nairobi. Home.

I came back to Nairobi directly to watch an intriguing play; Kaggia by John Sibi Okumu. It chronicles the life of one of the Kapenguria Six, Bildad Kaggia as told by Stacey and Xan, two young film makers in contemporary Kenya who meet to discuss the script for a film of this freedom fighter and nationalist politician.

Kaggia chose to celebrate this hard won freedom through living a simple life.  A simple life that came at a high cost. He believed the meaning of true freedom would only be realised if ALL Kenyans had access to the very freedoms he and his fellow freedom fighters fought for. He declined to enrich himself at the expense of the constituency he served. This was despite being publicly taunted by President Jomo Kenyatta as being a fool ostensibly for choosing to stay poor.

He chose to remain true to his personal conviction that every citizen ought to benefit from the struggle for independence he took part in. Not just a select few. More than that Kaggia was a Revolutionary as described by Lewis Gordon in a talk ‘Frantz Fanon at 90 and his relevance in today’s world’  who  understood that the communal struggle is bigger than the individual and accepted that those who usher in freedom are rarely best suited to lead once freedom is attained. Kaggia was the true revolutionary who was willing to fight for freedom even while knowing that he may not taste the fruits thereof. And he didn’t.

Dying in abject poverty I couldn’t help wonder how different Kaggia’s life was from the men I had met at the Kisumu Prison. He made a conscious decision to live out his freedom guided by the principles and conviction that drove to fight for that freedom in the first place.
Was he foolish to subject his family to a diet that was free of the Matunda ya Uhuru?

You be the judge.

This freedom theme continued when I watched the film Lumumba by Raoul Peck. A courageous man who believed that freedom for the African people should be prescribed by the African themselves. He chose freedom for his people and he got shot by his fellow African.

Perhaps, he reckoned, he was 50 years to early. Yet, years on, the struggle continues.

With the choice of freedom comes responsibility. Responsibility is a choice. As much as I did not have extensive conversations except for perfunctory greetings with the prisoners, there seemed to be a sense of order in that courtyard at Kisumu Main GK Prison.

Does it take going to jail for order to prevail? With the rise of violence against women does it need for that freedom to be taken away from the male assailants for them to be whole again?

Is prison the only hope for the future of men to be one that is bright? Free? Just? Secure?




Author: Chris

Thriving in The Love Edition

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