COVID-19 in Kenyan prisons: A loose cannon

There are 53,841 people incarcerated in Kenya. The prison density, the amount of prisoners per prison places stands at 202%. There were 105 prisons and remand facilities operating in the country in 2018. It’s crystal clear that the prisons and remand facilities are overcrowded. The environment does not allow for social distancing.

The COVID-19 virus spreads easily through physical contact from person to person. The virus  spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within about six feet) for a prolonged period. Spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. The droplets can also be inhaled into the lungs. Since people can spread the virus before they know they are sick, it is important to stay at least six feet away from others when possible, whether or not one is exhibiting the symptoms. This is why it is important to reduce the ways people come in close contact with one another. Social distancing is important as it limits an individual’s  exposure to the virus.In most jails in Kenya this activity is a pipe dream because of overcrowding.

With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kenya at 30,120 with 474 deaths what does this mean for the thousands of inmates around the country? Are there any measures put in place to protect the prisoners and wardens from this deadly disease?

A never-ending story. 

Research has found that those charged with petty offences make up the highest population of prisoners. The typical story for an inmate goes something like this:

A man steals a chicken, or at least is accused of doing so. He spends the night in a police cell that is most likely filthy and poorly ventilated, with an increased chance of contracting scabies, tuberculosis or diarrhoea. Once a person survives the horrid situation in the police cells, they are arraigned in court, during this process they will probably be huddled into another dingy enclosure, this time a court cell, as they wait to appear before a magistrate or a judge. The next step is remand, where detainees face similarly inhumane conditions and are limited from speaking with their lawyers. This can be blamed on the fact that there are no consultation rooms and the infrastructure does not cater for this.

Mer is a typically overcrowded remand facility. It has a capacity of 200, but has held up to 802 people at one time. The inmates receive poor quality meals, and lice and bedbugs are the order of the day. If found guilty, the arrested person will end up either in Shimo La Tewa or the Langata Women’s Prison both of which are thoroughly overcrowded. 

Surviving Kenya’s prison system.

Kenya’s criminal justice system has not changed much since the 1900s.

Kenyans in correctional facilities today face the same harsh and undignified conditions that our forefathers faced during the colonial era. The correctional facilities have never received any type of renovation. The Nairobi Remand Facility was built in 1911, and the Shimo La Tewa prison was built in 1953. The aged buildings have housed men and women who were caught on the wrong side of the law for decades. Reform is long overdue, but COVID-19 makes it ever more urgent. 

The big questions remains, what measures are being taken to ensure that new offenders do not directly mix with the old? Is screening of wardens and other staff who are allowed in and out of the correctional services taking place? Do the inmates sanitise or use masks on a day to day basis as we do? Is there any form of social distancing? 

The move by the commissioner-general of prisons Mr Wcyllif Ogolla to stop prison visits is commendable but what is being done for Kamau who is in a crowded prison at the moment?

Already 31 prisoners  have tested positive for COVID-19 after they had completed their 21 day quarantine. What does this say about the measures put in place to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in correctional facilities?

A solution has to be found: the COVID-19 issue in prisons is a ticking time bomb.

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COVID-19 in Kenyan prisons: A loose cannon

by Asha Mukanda Maombola Reading time: 3 min