Human rights violations in Kenyan prisons
For over 12 years, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) has been monitoring local prisons—publicizing deplorable prison conditions and investigating human rights violations.
Friday, 07 November 2008, by Based on coverage by the KHRC, Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic Kenya case study on the Thika prison, IRIN Africa, and Sunday Monitors Kampala newspaper; this article has been written, edited, and prepared for publication by HRHF / Renee Lewis.
The KHRC has been a moving force in advocating for Kenyan prison reform and prisoner’s rights. However, even though relations between human rights organizations and the Prison Department have improved over the last few years, prison conditions are still inhumane and in stark violation of human rights laws.
In 2006, the Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic in Kenya visited the Thika prison to investigate the poor conditions at the facility. Soon after the visit, the Oscar Foundation published a human rights report on their findings. The foundation established that the Kenyan prison was facing systemic problems such as: immense overcrowding; the deprivation of due process and inability to access legal aid; and the lack of training for prison staff. These pervasive problems have resulted in food shortages, insufficient medical care, and the inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners by prison authorities.
The report demonstrated that overcrowding was one of the main reasons for the deplorable prison conditions. According to the Foundation’s findings, the male wing of the prison consisted of one ward measuring 15 by 10 feet. This ward held 176 inmates. There were only 67 mattresses and 80 blankets to be shared among the 176 inmates. There was no internal toilet or shower, and the external toilets and showers were in deplorable condition. The cells lacked a drainage system, and floors were covered with potholes that trapped water and bred insects. Furthermore, there was poor ventilation, and inmates were not provided with basic sanitation supplies such as toilet paper, soap, toothbrush, or towels. The report stated that the overcrowding at this prison was at a level that can only be described as inhuman and degrading.
According to the KHRC, the prisons in Kenya are holding three times the capacity the facilities are designed to hold. The KHRC has suggested that alternatives to imprisonment ought to be considered, especially for prisoners that have yet to be tried in a court of law, referred to as “remandees." The Oscar Foundation found that remand offenders in the Thika prison constituted the bulk of prisoners and were not seperated from convicted prisoners.
Furthermore, remand prisoners are often incarcerated for months, even years, before their cases are heard and tried in court. As the KHRC points out, under the current Constitution of Kenya, Section 72 (5) provides that if a person arrested or detained is not tried within a reasonable time, he or she shall be released either unconditionally or upon reasonable conditions. But in reality, the KHRC says, this constitutional safeguard is often not enforced.
Kenya is not the only African country with the need for serious prison reform. Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have also drawn international criticism for human rights violations within their prison systems . In March 2007, for example, Uganda had 18,558 prisoners held within Uganda’s 48 central government prisons and 174 local governmental prisons. According to the Prisons Public Relations Officer, Mr. Baker Asinjah, some of the prisoners spend more than three years on remand. Mr. Asinjah stated that the current prison facilities are unable to accommodate the growing number of prisoners. “Some of these structures were built as long ago as 1940, the population of prisoners has since increased but the structures remain the same,” he said. As the number of prisoners grows, the ability for the facilities to meet basic needs declines.
In the DRC, human rights activists condemned the death of 16 prisoners by starvation and lack of medical care in a prison in the central province of Kasai Orientale. The UN Mission in Congo (MONUC) attributed the deaths that occurred in 2007 to malnutrition, starvation and lack of healthcare. The prison was originally designed to accommodate 100 inmates, but now holds 398 people. According to MONUC, human rights violations are commonplace in almost all prisons in the DRC. “The prison does not meet the UN standards for the treatment of prisoners. It is filthy, smelly and exposes inmates to diseases like scabies and lice,” said Kemal Saiki, MONUC spokesman.
Prison reform and respect for prisoner’s fundamental human rights under international law is greatly needed in many African countries. The Oscar Foundation’s investigation and human rights report, along with the KHRC’s monitoring and advocacy efforts have raised awareness of the systemic problems that must be dealt with in order to combat human rights violations.
Currently, the KHRC is in the process of developing a pilot program for training prison officers. “Because we are limited in reaching our target group, the inmates, KHRC has resolved to innovatively utilize opportunities such as training with the hope that, with a change of attitude by Prison Officers, inmates can be assured better treatment than presently enjoyed.”
Based on coverage by the KHRC, Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic Kenya case study on the Thika prison, IRIN Africa, and Sunday Monitors Kampala newspaper; this article has been written, edited, and prepared for publication by HRHF / Renee Lewis.