Incarceration: Hashtag, Because, Colonialism

What my visit to Manyani Prison taught me about prison systems established in colonial Kenya and their impact on rehabilitation today. By Linda Ngari.

My first ever field work as a volunteer at MBC was a not-so-warm welcome into the vestiges of colonialism in Kenya. As part of the Anti-Blackness project, we left Nairobi at 5am, to make it in good time to the Manyani Maximum Security Prison located in Taita Taveta county, about 300KM away.

MBC Team and Manyani Maximum Prison guards, Photo: MBC

We arrived at around 10AM and handed our guest tags upon entry. Our first stop was at the administration office. To introduce ourselves to the main guard and explain the purpose of our visit. To also get filled in on the do’s and dont’s of our expedition at the prison. Like not to take photos of inmates. It is at this point that we were also assigned armed guards to show us around, because there’s a possibility that wild animals could be lurking around. True to this, we did indeed spot an elephant outside the neighbouring Manyani Primary School classes. The students did not have an armed guard, although one of the guards commented that elephants never harm children. He is the authority in this, so we believed him and went on with the tour.

The prison was established in 1954. It once held political activists that I’d read about in my Social Studies classes in primary school. Including some of the ‘Kapenguria Six’ political activists, as well as Raila Odinga, who was held for allegedly participating in an attempted coup against Former president Daniel Moi in 1982.

Manyani prison was a reserve for “hard core” prisoners in colonial Kenya. Prisoners face the possibility of animal attacks due to the neighbouring Tsavo National Park, in addition to the harsh weather, that alternates between extremely cold and extremely hot spells. The wild animals are also a deterrent in case the inmates thought of escaping- one of the prison guards told us. 

  • 1954 Initially established as a reception center to hold detainees in transit to other camps across the country
  • 1958 Became Manyani detention camp from special detention camp 
  • 1966 Became Mbololo Hills prison 
  • 1972 Became Manyani Prison
  • 2010 Became Manyani Maximum Security Prison. 

“Some wanted to call it Super Maximum Security Prison”, another guard quipped.

A plaque outside the administration office showing when Manyani was made a maximum prison, Photo: MBC

As King Charles III was recently on a four-day state visit in Kenya, he was poised to use this time to “deepen his own understandings” of the atrocities Kenyans faced under the British colonial rule.

“The wrongdoings of the past…were abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans as they waged a painful struggle for independence and sovereignty”, he said. But even as Kenya hopes to mark 60 years of indepence on December 12, Kenyan prison systems are far from decolonization. The so called “wrongdoings of the past”, are still in practice today.

Colonial structures were repurposed and continue to be used in modern Kenya. Kangubiri Girls High School in Central Kenya for instance was previously a detention camp. Many Kenyan boarding schools mirror, to a large extent, the life of a prisoner. With prefects and teachers acting as correctional officers without guns. More recently, a BBC documentary revealed the extent of corporal punishment in Kenyan schools. Children suffer permanent illness. Some have died, in the hands of teachers.

MBC spoke to Teresa Njoroge, who was in 2010 held at Lang’ata Maximum Prison for one year together with her 3-month-old daughter at the time.

“Colonialism continues to impact the African population. It manifests in resolving justice matters, imprisonment, and the rehabilitation of Africans in a very punitive manner. I would like to start on the impact of colonialism from the perspective of the judicial system because that is the setup that the colonizers left in Africa. Whatever the colonialists set up continues to be used to date to subject the natives,” Teresa said.

The colonial-era penal code, is part of the judicial system upheld as law in contemporary Kenya despite being criticised for retaining antiquated prohibitions like anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality laws among many.

MBC looks into the validity of a colonial prison system that was only began to advance the needs of colonial masters;

A highly militarised prison system, as a response to Mau Mau hysteria

“The police, prison and military this entanglement never goes away,” Kenyan journalist Patrick Gathara said at the MBC Anti-Blackness and Colonial Detention global conversation. “Prisons are highly militarised. Prison wardens during colonialism were promoted to prison commissioners.”

Hysteria around the Mau Mau uprising brought about the demand for longer, harder, harsher sentences for petty things like having dreadlocs or not taking off a hat in the presence of a white man.

The Mau Mau uprising began in the 1950s, it is during this period that most of the existing maximum prisons were established;

  • Manyani-1954
  • Kamiti- First prisoner sentenced in September 1954
  • Shimo La Tewa- 1953

Consequently, in colonial Kenya, Africans would squat in rows for count. This still happens in prisons today. A report on The Elephant quotes a former inmate at Manyani Maximum Security Prison who said they would squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards at least six times a day.

Teresa recalls experiencing the same treatment at Lang’ata women’s prison.

“We were counted so many times a day, while squatting, and all the time referring to the officers as madam, madam, madam”, she said.

“It actually felt like one of those colonial camps, where they rounded people up and locked them. It felt exactly the same from what I have watched, seeing how the freedom fighters were rounded up and the way they were punished. It’s copy, paste. Only that they were called concentration camps and run by colonialists. Now, the name has just turned to prisons, but run by African prison wards.”

“From the way I was admitted in prison, the strip search is very traumatizing, then you’re given your prison number. You forfeit your name and now adapt to this new identity given in form of a number. My new identity was now 415 stroke 11 and no longer Teresa Njoroge.”

A tweet shared during the COVID-19 crackdown on curfew violations juxtaposed how police paraded civilians in the same way that homeguards and colonial masters did.

But also, incarceration to further economic gain for colonial masters

“If a colonial employer found their employee wasnt productive enough, they’d be sent to prison, then back to work harder”- Gathara

Another offense that was common among prisoners in colonial Kenya was failure to pay taxes. In modern day Kenya, the prison population largely comprises of petty offenders who could not afford bail. In her experience, Teresa recounts meeting women that were held because they were unable to afford bail worth as much as 500 Kenyan shillings (slightly over three dollars).

“Majority of the prison population are not harmful or caused any danger to society. They comprise of people who were arrested because they were hawking, or prostituting, or indebted,” Teresa said.

She added, “The biggest impact of colonial systems in the criminal justice system in Kenya is the fact that it has criminalized poverty. These are people who should have either been given a warning, a probation sentence, or alternative sentencing. Not custodial sentence.”

With a degree in commerce under her sleeve, and a job as a bank manager at the time of her arrest, Teresa was asked to pay one million Kenyan shillings (about $6,630) in bail. Even so, she was only able to raise the money after a family fund raising.

The myth that more prisons equals more space

“In 1954, Manyani was built to house 6,000 detainees. Within months, it was reported that 16,000 detainees were held there.”- MBC anti-blackness report.

In May this year, President William Ruto ordered his officials to urgently develop a Prisons Masterplan that identifies new prison sites. This was to imply that more prisons would decongest the existing over 130 prison institutions. But when Former President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2020 ordered the release of prisoners due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands were released, and thousands more thrown in jail. Over one weekend alone, about 2,400 people were arrested for flouting COVID-19 rules. At least 20 were killed by police in their noble quest to teach the maskless curfew defaulters a lesson.

While touring Manyani prison, we noticed that while there was this massive piece of land allocated to the prison, only a third of it held the prison’s infrastructure- where prisoners were held, admin offices and guards’ rooms built. Most of it was wasteland that could have been used to do more for the community neighboring the prison. This borders on environmental crimes. However, it also showed that colonial prisoners were separated. Some in more decent hut-like structures that are currently still used to shelter inmates, others in what appear to be tiny torture chambers that were abandoned but whose remains are still visible. 

We drove for about more than 20KM within the camp and walked another more or less 5KM to get to the imagined solitary cells, torture chambers and supplementary rooms.

Remains of torture chambers at Manyani Maximum Prison, Photo: MBC

In response to the question of overcrowding at Manyani prison, one of the guards answered in jest, “In Africa, we don’t count our children.” Small huts embedded with the signature barbed wire rooftops shelter at least ten to fourteen inmates each.

One of the hut-like structures used to shelter 10-14 inmates, Photo: MBC

The inside of inmates’ houses, Photo: MBC

Speaking of children, the Kenya Prisons Service announced a new addition to its arsenal – Kamae Girls Borstal Institute, as a wing under Kamiti Maximum Prison, despite the abolition of Borstal institutions in the UK in the 1980s.

Moody Awori as the father of prison reforms

While current president Ruto pushes for reforms through his “Masterplan” to relocate prisons to rural areas, Former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka introduced television to all prisons in 2009. But none hold a candle to Kalonzo’s predecessor, Former Deputy President Moody Awori.

Teresa calls Moody Awori “The father of prison reforms”. She notes that the open door policy introduced by Moody Awori allowed the private sector and donors to partner with prisons towards improving infrastructure and the living conditions of inmates. 

Thanks to Moody Awori’s open door policy, MBC could gain access into Manyani Maximum Security Prison. We were surprised by the prompt reply to our letter of intent, and amazed at the level of access granted.

Moody Awori is also known for being the first to propose conjugal visits. He also introduced buses to transport inmates whereas before, they would be transported while standing in prison trucks called Maria.

Thanks to Moody Awori, Teresa, who is now 45-years-old can run her organization, Clean Start, which is dedicated to restoring dignity for current and former female inmates.

Teresa Njoroge interacting with female inmates, Photo: Clean Start website

Talent shows were introduced as a component of prison reforms, and out of this we were happy to meet YouTube sensation Macoroma, who is held at Manyani Prison for robbery with violence. He produced the song Wasinisahau (Forget me not) from prison.

The Kenya Prisons Service motto is Kurekebisha na haki (Swahili for Rehabilitation and Justice). But majority of Kenyans are more comfortable seeking justice outside the judicial system. Chiefs and village elders are approached with more cases than judges. They are trusted to dispense justice over the expensive judicial route, an indication that pre-colonial forms of solving disputes still resonate with majority. Also debunking the myth that traditional methods of solving disputes were more atrocious.

Linda Ngari, MBC Team Member

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