So we casually moseyed into the prison ready for our one day sentence er, visit. Kamiti Medium Security Prison is for offenders with less than a five year sentence, and also for petty offenders. We were met by one of the senior wardens. He was very warm and hospitable. He advised us to leave our phones, among other valuables, in the car but some of us, read me, needed to generate live tweets from Kamiti Prison (how often do you see that? :D) and take photos for our blogs.
We all had to give our names and ID numbers at a registration desk of sorts before going in. As I spelt out my (often misspelt) last name for one of the lady wardens, I wondered how they (the wardens) felt about their jobs. They didn’t have the easiest jobs in the world yet they were all seemed very pleasant. Nothing like the tyrannical bastards you’d imagine them to be.
An escort was required to move around the prison at all times. Being in the prison vicinity made you a prisoner of sorts. You were not free to wander as you pleased and had to adhere to a set of rules. All males were required to have a visitor’s tag displayed at all times for obvious reasons.
An aged notice board above the registration desk read in big, bold letters, “WAJUE WATORO WENU – KNOW YOUR PRISONERS.” I found it rather confusing. Watoro, plural of mtoro, means escapee or refugee in Swahili. The Swahili word for prisoner is mfungwa or mahabusu (which is specifically used to refer to those awaiting trial. Looked it up :D). So did this statement mean that you should know your escapees or prisoners? I may never know.
We spent our first hour at the prison seated in a tent, with the prisoners seated, some standing, at the far ends of both tents watching our every move, I would imagine. I avoided making eye contact at all costs. A quick glance once every while was all I could afford. There were a few cat calls here and there, which was expected given the huge population of ladies in our midst. Later on, I heard one of the inmates tell his comrade, “Kuwa mfungwa ni vibaya! Wengine hapa hata sijui walizaliwa wapi. Sijui naeza watoa wapi (It sucks to be a prisoner! I don’t know where some of these ladies were born. I don’t know where I can find such),” referring to some ladies painting alongside them, but I digress.
What did the prisoners think of us? Did they enjoy having visitors? Did we seem like a bunch of detached NGOish types? As I looked around, I noticed an elderly Asian inmate with a balding head and graying hair. He really stood out from the rest of the pack. I wondered what he was in for. I wondered what every inmate was in for. A few wardens briefed us on the day’s activities, one of them saying in very many words that prisons were actually ‘not so bad’ nowadays. At one point he mentioned that we should not imagine prisons as hell holes (not in these exact words). And that the inmates were learning a great many skills. In our midst were skilled farmers, carpenters, acrobats, dancers, et cetera. He added that the food there was top notch. “Mtapata buffet huku (You’ll find a buffet here),” he said animatedly. “Pilau, kuku, nyama za kila aina…” (“Pilau, chicken and all kinds of meat…),” he went on while a section of the inmates quietly scoffed at his sarcasm. I cringed at what I considered a misguided attempt at humour. I wondered if any of the inmates found this funny.
Another warden echoed his sentiments about how prisons had indeed become better places. He said something to the effect that in 2000, an open door policy was made to allow relatives and friends to visit their loved ones in prison. Now I tried to find a confirmation of this in The Prisons Act, among other legal documents but didn’t find one. Anyone with the correct information, feel free to let me know and I shall make the necessary changes, if need be, but I digress (as usual). The prisoners seemed to have a relatively good relationship with the wardens. Some seemed almost like friends. It was good, I thought, the improvement of facilities, acquirement of useful skills and better treatment of the inmates (though part of me knows that people who have undergone unspeakable atrocities in the hands of some of these inmates may not agree). I wondered about the rehabilitative function prisons are meant to serve? How effective was that here?
After we were familiarized with our surroundings and introduced to the senior wardens, it was time to get to work. We had a choice of painting the prisoner’s social hall or participating in or cheering on a game of football between the inmates and wardens and later on between the inmates and our group. There were also group counseling sessions held for the prisoners who so desired. I chose to paint. Masks, brushes, sandpaper and paint were distributed among the group that was painting and we soon got to work.
P.s. A month or so after our visit, I watched a feature on prisons on GBS (I was channel flipping and it caught my eye, you know, because I had been to a prison before. Wait, why am I explaining myself? Pfff :p). So this feature was done in Kamiti Meidum Prison and I saw some familiar faces. I saw a few wardens and prisoners I had interacted with and I said, “I know that guy! Him too!” Thankfully, there was no one around to go like o_O. Feel free to give me the look (well virtually) as you read this. I also saw the social hall we painted. The inmates were practising a dance routine (that they performed for us that day) there. “We painted that place!” I said. I felt proud.