There are collectively held preconceived notions about prisons, and they’re not great. The very idea is enough to keep most people from committing crimes. But what is life really like for the women locked up in Lang’ata Prison? By Caitlin Nordahl
Liz has been behind the gates of Lang’ata Prison for seven years. And now, three days before she’s due to be released, she’s shyly basking in the attention of a ceremony in her honour.
Before she became a prisoner, Liz made a living as a mitumba saleswoman. Business was good and she was looking to expand. “That is when my nightmare began,” she proclaims loudly, looking up from the sheet with the English version of her prepared speech for the first time.
As she tells it, one day she was taking a cab to send a large package of clothes out of Nairobi. When she got in, nothing was out of the ordinary, but things took a terrible turn when the car was signalled to pull over at a police checkpoint. Instead, the driver sped past. In the ensuing chase, the taxi crashed into a ditch and left Liz dazed. The driver, on the other hand, jumped out of the car and ran, so that when police caught up, they only found her. Liz was arrested.
She spent three years in remand, before she was sentenced to an additional four years and two months in the prison. Now, she’s getting ready to go out into the world again.
But that’s not why the prison is holding a ceremony for her. While incarcerated, Liz became involved in the prison’s choir group, and found inspiration as well as faith. With tracks that were her own compositions, Liz created her own Christian music DVD, featuring herself and other inmates, and today they celebrate the launch.
As she prepares to leave she’s overwhelmed with emotion. Obviously grateful for the opportunities given to her while there, she is, of course, more grateful to be leaving.
Becoming an Inmate
Lang’ata Prison is a sprawling complex, with a remand centre and the women’s prison, which is a maximum security facility.
This means that it hosts women convicted of violent crimes, like murder, assault and robbery with a weapon, from all around the country.
Elizabeth is young, and has an open face and kind eyes. She smiles sweetly, and when asked why she’s there lets out a small, nervous chuckle. “I’m in prison because of manslaughter,” she says. What happened? In a high, girl-like voice she replies matter-of-factly, “I just had a fight with my husband. And then he died.”
Phylis, whose shy responses and hushed voice are belied by the open curiosity in her round face, is serving two years for assault.
Charity has clearly been there for a while. She’s not old, but she has an air of acceptance – not in a satisfied way, rather she seems resigned to her life there. A 12-year veteran of Lang’ata, she’s there for robbery with a weapon after she and her co-workers robbed their boss.
Phoebe is the newcomer. She’s charged with murder but she hasn’t been convicted yet, so she waits in remand. So far she’s been there for nine months.
Once a woman is arrested in Kenya, her court process begins. If she can’t pay bail, she waits in Lang’ata’s remand centre. The amount of time women spend in remand varies considerably. Some of them go straight to prison while others spend years, because different cases take different amounts of time. Typically a person charged with loitering or shoplifting will be processed quicker than the violent crimes, but, of course, it also depends on how complicated the case is.
The Waiting Game
The remand prison in Lang’ata is a place of limbo. It’s a large structure, with the cells organized around a courtyard. The cells themselves are small rooms, although not miniscule, with a bathroom and bunks in each – every prisoner has a bed.
They also have quite a bit of freedom in terms of how they spend their days, unless they are scheduled for court. Otherwise, they can stay in their cells, participate in some of the prison’s rehabilitation projects or prepare themselves for court, including washing their ‘outside’ clothes for their day in front of the judge. In remand, there are two different types of uniforms – the standard stripes for the lesser crimes and a plain blue for capital offenses.
All of the women agree that being there, not knowing what’s going to happen, is nerve wracking.
Phoebe is still waiting to find out what will happen to her. “At times it feels hopeless. You don’t really know what will happen, how long it’s going to take. Even if you know one day, one time you’re going to leave prison, you don’t really know [when].”
However, she seems to be preparing herself for the worst, explaining her ‘what-ifs’ with certainty. “I think when I get convicted it will be a bitter pill to swallow.”
Elizabeth could sympathize, as she knows what it’s like to stare down the barrel of a murder charge, which carries sentences like 20 years and death. When she was first brought to remand, she was originally charged with murder. “I was stressed. I didn’t know if the case could fall to manslaughter, because when you’re charged with murder it’s a very big case.” But she was lucky, and her charge was commuted to manslaughter, with typical sentences of two, three or five years.
In terms of the waiting game in remand, however, Charity takes the cake. She spent three and a half years there, and actually didn’t think she’d be convicted. “I was expecting to be released after the hearing of my case, but unfortunately I was sentenced to [death]. But later I was pardoned and sentenced to life.”
Once convicted the women are sentenced. Time in remand can be taken off, but the judge can also decide to add it on top. Then they are transferred to the prison, processed and officially become inmates.
The actual prison is set up quite differently from remand. Large, one-storey stone buildings covered with red mud are evenly spaced throughout the complex, with walkways going through them. There are patches of grass around the buildings where it will grow, with patches of dirt where it won’t – creating a monotone color scheme.
In addition to the wards (where the inmates sleep), there are offices for the prison administration, offices for various aid and religious organizations, the kitchen (which makes the food for all the sub-prisons in the Lang’ata complex), a bakery, classroom and counseling buildings, a combination courtyard and sports area, a small farm, a dispensary, a shop and an ‘industry’ room where the inmates make handcrafts.
In 2002, new policies opened the Kenyan prisons, making it much easier for outsiders to get in, whether they were visitors, aid groups or religious leaders looking to perform church services. Father Peter, a Swiss priest, was one of the first to take advantage of the new openness and started going to the Lang’ata Prison on Sundays for mass. While there, he saw some basic necessities the women were going without and started an organization called Faraja to help them. Five years later, in 2007, the organization had grown to the point that it was ready to tackle larger projects. The bakery in the women’s prison was one of the first, but that’s now run by the prison. Faraja’s idea is that once a project is up and running, they can turn it over to the prison, which can use government funds to keep it going – that way they can keep moving on to the next idea. Other projects they’ve started include formal education, computer training, counseling and arts and crafts projects, which are lumped together in the industry category.
Charity, who’s been in Lang’ata for 12 years, says that things changed since the reforms. The projects that stand out to her the most are the counseling and the school, but she is very quick to mention that before, they never had shoes. Now they do.
A typical day for the inmates begins around 6:30am when they wake up. The cell doors are opened at 7am, and role call is at 8am. Then the inmates have their breakfast and go to their assigned tasks. They might be working in the kitchen, on the farm or on various projects. Elizabeth is enrolled in the prison’s school, and spends her mornings and early afternoons there. When she’s done, she does fellowship and prayer with the other inmates, studies a bit, then has dinner and goes to sleep, starting the process all over the next day.
“And what will be the third element?” demands Jaqualine Onyango, one of the officers in charge of teaching the inmates in the prison’s school system. She’s greeted with silence and nervous smiles, but responds harshly with, “I won’t tell you that, I’ll expect you to bring me the answer later. I can’t give you every answer.” But the stern act is belied by a small laugh at the end.
Onyango was a teacher for eight years before coming to Lang’ata in 2012. “The education system in prison,” she says with a chuckle, “is challenging.”
Inmates have to have long enough sentences to participate, otherwise they are released before they really get started. There is, however, the three-month computer class for women who want to learn but aren’t there for long. They also have to be determined fit to go to the school, meaning they have to be disciplined.
Once the women are in the classes though, it’s on them to be good students. “It depends on how committed the students are. If they don’t want to come to class we don’t force them.”
However, she is quick to proudly point out that most of her students – she’s currently teaching a little over 20 women spread throughout different levels – are above average. Another point of pride is that most of the women serving longer sentences are in or have been through the education system.
Elizabeth, with her five-year sentence,is serious about learning. “I’m going back to school because my son needs me more than ever and I don’t want him to ever regret being born,” she explains. “At least he can be proud of his mother, because he doesn’t have a father now. I’m the only one he’s looking up to. And I love my boy so much.”
The industry building is a long, narrow room bustling with activity and oddly dark, considering the intricate work going on. The inmates are arranged according to what they’re doing, with women making sisal baskets in one corner, women doing needlepoint a bit further on, women sewing and tailoring uniforms just next to the women ironing them and women doing beadwork in the back. The finished products are offered up for sale to visitors in the showroom, just inside the gates, as well as at any official prison function and at some local fairs and markets.
While a large chunk of the proceeds goes towards more supplies, the inmates involved in the projects also get a cut – an important source of supplemental income to add to what their families can give them. The particularly industrious can make up to KSH 1,000 in a good month, but KSH 500 isn’t an unheard of sum.
A Difficult Life
Money can be problematic for the inmates, particularly those whose families live far outside Nairobi. Because the prison encompasses capital offenders, women from around the country are held there. Few of their families are able to visit on a regular basis, and when they do they spend a lot of money getting there and can’t leave much more.
One thing all the inmates can agree on is that the food is bad – the bread and milk they can buy from the store is almost a necessity. Otherwise, they survive on porridge, ugali, beans, sukuma wiki and occasionally a bit of meat. Elizabeth says, “Our parents do bring us money, but not every time…so I manage with the little I have.”
Another issue is conflicts between the inmates. “Maybe you find someone has taken your things…you find that life is very frustrating,” Elizabeth explains. With money being so hard to come by for the inmates, theft is a serious problem. Women who can’t afford what they need will take it from the others they see as weaker, easy targets. While stolen items can be reported, the easier option is usually to just do without, so they don’t have to deal with repercussions later. Repercussions that may include violent physical retaliation.
The women do make friends behind bars. Charity is quick to point out that the fellowship between them helps as they can talk about their problems. But she adds that it’s not easy to make them. “Some of the others, they can discourage you, others can mock you, provoke you. So it’s not easy.”
She’s adamant that there aren’t physical altercations. “No,” she says, “No, no, no, no. According to the discipline and the authority regulations we are not allowed to fight.”
But that’s not always the case. Inmates do sometimes get into fights, especially when they are locked in their cells for the night.
Loneliness is a massive problem for the women. While some inmates’ families visit often, others aren’t so lucky. Since her arrest, Phyllis has only seen her daughter when she was in court. “It’s difficult. Especially when you do not get visited,” she says.
The crushing isolation can lead to women reaching out to their fellow inmates for more than just friendship. While behind bars, some of them turn to sexual relationships with each other. Madame Mary Kamau, the prison’s welfare officer, admits that these things do happen, but qualifies it with, “I think that is just in them, it’s not [from] staying long.” She argues that, for women who had a lifestyle centered around sex or relationships, “They find it very hard to cope without that romantic whatever in their life.” These relationships, however, are often consensual, unlike in men’s prisons where rape is well documented. Sexual harassment, at least, is one thing the women inmates are not plagued with.
One of the most humiliating parts of life in the prison is contraband searches. Guards search cells and go through all of the women’s belongings before searching the women themselves, which can be very embarrassing for the girls. One of these searches even caused a riot in the remand section in 2010, with the inmates getting so out of hand that civilian police had to be called in to quell them. Checking for things like drugs and mobile phones, which can be used to harass and scam people outside the prisons, the guards also sometimes find small weapons. So the searches are vital.
Mostly, however, it’s difficult for the inmates to live knowing they’re locked up. “It’s more than hard,” Charity says, “Because staying in one place, moving just here in the square…it is not easy.” Phoebe explains the worst part of prison more succinctly: “Lacking freedom, that is all.”
Growing Up in Prison
Her lack is even more poignant, in that this should be one of the most joyous times of her life. Phoebe has recently given birth to her first born, a son named Elliot.
Women can have their children in prison with them until they are four years old. The kids are kept in a nursery section during the day, where they are watched by a few of the inmates and guards. Currently there are about 90 children living in Lang’ata Prison. But because they’re well behaved and stay put, while they’re in the nursery there’s no sign of them other than tiny clothes drying on the chain link fences around the compound.
Faraja is working on opening a children’s centre on the prison grounds, for the prisoners’ children and the guards’. It’s nearly finished now, and they see it as an important step to give the kids something that was built for them, something that was never part of the prison.
But while the children are loved and people are trying to do things for them, they are still growing up in a prison. One concern the mothers have is that their kids aren’t getting proper nutrition.
“I’m still breast feeding,” Phoebe says, “What I feed on determines how the breast milk will be, so it’s a bit difficult. Sometimes the milk is too light to sustain them. But what else do you do? Just wait.”
But it’s also the idea of raising their children behind bars. While the kids lead a reasonably happy life and are provided with the necessities, they’re still locked up with their mothers every night. Phoebe is adamant that prison is not a good place to raise a child, and says that if she is convicted she won’t keep him with her. “It’s so good to have him, but I want him to go home.”
Back in Society
When released, most of the women plan to start their own businesses. But Charity is not optimistic about released inmates’ prospects. She thinks the women should get more money from the work they do in industry, because when they get out they are usually destitute. “It is fairly easy to commit crime and come back because you have nothing,” she says, with the wisdom of 12 years served coming out in her voice.
Madame Kamau admits that the repeat offender rate is quite high. “As much as we reform them…they feel comfortable here. When they’re about to be released, you see them [and] sometimes they look sick.”
Some of the women, once on the outside, try to return home only to be beaten and shunned. Then, even a prison can become a place of peace.
However, Madame Kamau insists that all of the discipline is to help the women do better when they get back out. She says that they learn to communicate better, so when they’re released they can fit into society more easily. She also insists that coming to prison is a good thing for some of the women, impressing that, “They need to change – there is still hope.”
Elizabeth certainly looks on her sentence as a turning point, even going so far as to say, “But I thank God I am here. Because if I [were] outside I could have died, I could have been taking drugs, I don’t know how my life could be. But right now, when I came here, I’ve gone back to my senses. And I know I can do it.”
This strange, sober variety of hope is perhaps the most unusual thing about Lang’ata. It is certainly not a happy place, other than fleeting moments like Liz’s DVD launch. But still, some emotion other than misery has blossomed behind the prison gates.
First published in the October 2012 issue of Destination Magazine