Time to speed up reforms in our prisons
On 10th of August the world marked the International Prisoners Justice Day. The day marks the anniversary of the 1974 death of Eddie Nalon, a prisoner who bled to death in a solitary confinement unit at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison, Canada, when the emergency call button in his cell failed to work.
Although Kenya has continually joined the world in marking this day, there is more that needs to be done to ensure that prisoners access justice. The Kenya Prisons Service motto “Kurekebisha na haki’ (rehabilitation and justice) is also anchored on access to justice. Person deprived of liberty should not be deprived of their constitutional rights to access justice. Kenya prisons service and its partners has made strides in ensuring that even those in prisons are able to access justice however this duty should stretch to other players in the justice chain and also the government.
Article 48 of the constitution clearly spells out that the government shall ensure access to all persons even where cost are involved and the aggrieved person cannot afford. Unfortunately prisoners who are mainly from poor backgrounds are subjected to injustices through their trial and appeal processes. Expect in a few instances, accused persons are left to navigate the technical path of justice without legal representation or awareness. I believe that even when one is on the wrong they need to be heard and fairly sent to prison. Additionally, lack of legal representation has led to wrongful imprisonment as the accused persons are not able to comprehend both the procedural and substantive aspects of the court. Prisoners have been left to receive support from non-state actors despite this being government’s mandate.
Although justice is often associated with either an acquittal or conviction, the sanctity of the process that leads to either a conviction or an acquittal is the important thing. And even when one is found guilty they deserve to continue being treated in a just manner, giving them hope and rehabilitating them. They should also have hope and a plan to reintegrate back to the society reformed.
From the year 2003 there has been a lot of conversation about penal reforms in Kenya. There are also initiatives by the government and non-governmental partners that has gone towards improving our prisons conditions. The open door policy, introduction of rehabilitation programs and introduction of the Persons deprived of liberty Act are some of the positive initiatives that the government has put in place. There has also been a rapid shift in attitude towards prisons and prisoners in the recent years. Unlike in the past, prisons are not as opaque and anyone who wants to partner with the department has been allowed. Despite these great strides the condition in our prisons are not yet up to standard. The main challenge has been overcrowding and lack of legal assistance.
The government should fasten the process of repealing the Prison Act which is inconsistent with the international instruments that governs containment of offenders. The president while visiting Kamiti Prison in February 2017 acknowledged that the laws governing correctional services enacted during the colonial era were outdated and needed to be changed to reflect the new constitutional dispensation. The Cabinet Secretary of Interior in September 2018, committed to transform correctional services in Kenya. Despite all these declarations, the repealing of the Prison Act has continued to move very slowly. Repealing of the Prison Act will make it possible to implement the UN minimum standard rules for containment of offenders (Mandela Rules) and The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules). Although some prisons have tried to domesticate the above international instruments in pursuit of treating prisoners in a humane way, lack of legal mechanism that supports the same makes it difficult to domestic these good practices.
As we celebrate the strides that we have made in improving prisons reforms, let us challenge ourselves and live to the Kenya Prisons Service vision of being a correctional service of excellence in Africa and beyond.
Part of this article was publishe on the Daily Nation