Beyond the prism of a prisoned mind

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The African Prisons Project is doing a sensational job in helping prisoners and dare I say it prison systems across Africa rebuild from the inside out. I missed the group visit last month organised for ALN lawyers and associated organisations to visit the Kamiti Maximum Security prison facility in Kenya, and specifically the law clinic and academy that has been set up there and which will gain A&K's CSR support. Quite frankly I was stunned by what I saw and felt compelled to say something.

I laboured to a prison visit on the morning of September Friday 13th, the date itself was troubling. That the visit was to the maximum security Kamiti prison for men in Nairobi was cause for even more anxiety; yet I left the prison facility invigorated beyond belief and with a deep sense of hope.

I was escorted throughout the prison visit by Carol from African Prisons Project (APP), to see the law clinic and law academy they helped to establish within Kamiti, which is essentially run by the inmates. 16 inmates will graduate with a law degree next month and one is working towards his doctorate in law. Yes, you heard correctly!

The men I met with at the clinic have helped to over-turn numerous convictions for fellow inmates and to generally assist both inmates and prison officers in understanding their rights and responsibilities; they also write commentaries on criminal legislation and criminal law policy, which are taken very seriously by the Kenyan government. I have no hesitation in saying that these men are in no small ways heroes.

Many I spoke to openly admit to their criminal past, to the pain they caused their victims and their families and the sense of guilt and hopelessness this left them with, reinforced by the prospect of there being no way out. Having first been driven to do everything possible to commute their life long sentences or to reduce a death sentence, yes many of the inmates have been on death row for years, the abiding spirit has become one of helping fellow inmates and to rebuilding a sense of self and purpose. But perhaps beyond all of these achievements, which naturally focuses on the excellent legal services and learning that the clinic and academy provides to inmates, it is the peaceable existence between inmates and prison officers, who describe their relationship as one of brotherhood that stands out.

I was close to tears listening to the testimonies of men who had fallen through the cracks of society, degenerated as human figures only to have found a path to self mending and redemption. And in doing so, each of their experiences entwines with each others and that infectious circle of hope has spiralled across the whole facility with stunning results.

Carol and Peggy, also of APP who later joined us, the unarmed guards escorting us to the legal clinic room and I, not at any stage was there a sense that walking through a prison, side by side convicted felons of the most serious of offences or those accused of the most serious crimes, was unsafe. This alone is an endorsement of what the entire prison community at Kamiti has allowed to flourish. And it should be said that the prison officers equally play an important role in this amazing story, which apparently was very different only a few years ago.

A flurry of recent landmark legal rulings in Kenya have quashed the mandatory death sentence and quashed sentencing practices that lumped groups of offences together that were clearly different in severity, but ended up being treated the same in respect of the sentences imposed. Unbeknown to me, the day of my visit was a historic day at Kamiti prison, with a number of planned prison releases happening as a result of these legal rulings.

And my take, for what it is worth is this, that far from being fearful of such developments, we should be open to the idea that there are proven leaders within the prison population in Kamiti (and in other such turn around facilities), who will soon be released; and in my humble opinion should be given a chance to demonstrate how they can serve their communities. Some of the men I spoke with dreamed of opening law clinics within their communities, others of helping to be spoke persons for their neighbourhoods in helping others to understand their rights and responsibilities and to connect community justice with that of the constitutional frame work. These guys had the legal and constitutional provisions at their finger tips and what a job they could do in bringing justice closer to home, with their innate understanding of how to repair lost causes and then to build channels where positive outcomes can flourish more broadly. I cannot imagine a more difficult place to have achieved this than in a maximum security prison.

I conclude by simply conveying what I saw and felt; that the men I encountered entered the prison system as broken souls and yet will leave the facility contrite, with a sense of purpose and a debt to society that they are eager to repay. If there was ever a story to prove that no one or no situation is beyond redemption, I believe this is one of them. Massive praise to APP for believing in these men, your belief is yielding serious dividends.

Femi Omere, Executive Director ALN Academy