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Gitonga Njeru – WNN Features

Women inmates at the Lang'ata Women's Prison, Nairobi, Kenya

Women inmates at the Lang'ata Women's Prison, Nairobi, Kenya. Image: Lang'ata Women's Prison

(WNN) NAIROBI, Kenya, AFRICA: Thirty-three-year-old Christina Mumbi is a mother who has not seen her ten-year-old daughter for the last nine and a half years. She is currently serving a fifteen year sentence for a conviction of robbery with violence. In another six years she will complete her prison term.

Mumbi is among several thousand women prisoners who do not get access to their children after they begin serving their prison terms. She is now serving out her prison term at Lang’ata Women’s Prison on the outskirts of Nairobi. She has been told she could be released before her term ends with good behavior.

The Lang’ata prison is located on the edge of Kibera, a division of Nairobi 5.3 miles (approximately 8.5 Km) from downtown Nairobi, where a growing number of 700 to 1,000 women are jailed. Many of them are also in prison while pregnant. Children of women prisoners in Kenya are often traumatized as they grow up with a mother who is an inmate inside the prison environment.

Although the law in Kenya does not always set prison policy, a March 2005 report from KTN – Kenya Television Network outlines conditions for women inside the prison who are now allowed by law to see children over the age of three up to three times per year. For children younger than three, women prisoners are only allowed to visit with their children during short mid-day visits or while they are nursing. All other times, the children are kept from their mothers in a nursery while their mothers are in their cells. Even with Kenya’s law allowing grown children to visit, many mothers spend time in prison without easy access to their children. Some never see their children.

Today human rights activists in Kenya are taking legal action against the government to improve conditions for women prisoners throughout Kenya, especially the women of Lang’ata Prison.

Judy Thongori, family lawyer and women rights activists who previously headed the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), is optimistic about the action. The organization gives free legal support and representation to marginalized and abused women.

“When a woman is jailed, the children even need counseling services because most have a close bond with their mothers. Many of the women are denied access to visit their imprisoned parents despite a law that allows such visits,” she said. “In many sad cases, the women have died in custody without seeing their children for many years,” added Thongori in a one-on-one interview with WNN.

There is no reliable data on the exact number of women who are mothers serving time in Kenyan prisons, but they are estimated to number in the thousands.

Fifty-two-year-old Mary Mueni recently completed a three year prison sentence at Lang’ata Prison. As a mother with two grown children who are now sixteen and twenty-three, Mueni misses her children.

Female prison guard with women prisoners at the Lang'ata Women's Prison, Nairobi, Kenya

Female prison guard with women prisoners at the Lang'ata Women's Prison, Nairobi, Kenya. Image: Harambee Arts Project

“When I was sentenced, my children were not so young, but I missed out on the privileges of being a mother in prison. My youngest child was just thirteen years old,” said Muneni. “Most of the women I spent time with while in Prison never saw their children for as long as thirty five years,” she explains. “Mostly those serving long prison sentences.”

Some children never get the opportunity to see their mothers in the span of their lifetime outside of prison life. Numerous mothers die while in custody. Although some prisons are beginning to show some improvement numerous prisons in Kenya, just like most prisons throughout Africa, are deplorable.

Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening. Prisoners were subjected to severe overcrowding, deficient health care, and unsanitary conditions, and received inadequate water, diet, and bedding. Police and prison guards subjected prisoners to torture and inhuman treatment. Rape of both male and female inmates, primarily by fellow inmates, was a serious problem, as was the increasing incidence of HIV/AIDS,” says KENYA: Country Report on Human Rights Practices by the U.S. Department of State (2003/2004).

“It is not a good scenario, they (the prison wardens) beat you, and then they begin raping you when other inmates are watching. It happened to a fellow inmate. A few days later, the warden was killed by inmates because of that immoral act that he did. The woman was even infected with the HIV virus,” added Mueni.

“Prisoners have no rights, how can you have a right when you kill?” says sixty-two-year-old Mbuthia Manyatta, a warden at the Lang’atta Prison. “How can you have a right when you commit robbery with violence or you poison someone? Not in Africa, we should not give prisoners treatment similar to that of a five star hotel. That is why they are correctional institutions,” she continued.

Each prison must insure “adequate facilities and establishments for separating women prisoners and children,” recommends the 2010 Final Report on Kenya’s Task Force on Judicial Reforms chaired by the Hon. Mr. Justice William Ouko, a court judge who has been appointed to the High Court of Kenya and is now serving in Nakuru.

“The Task Force was informed that the current prison facilities hold more than double their capacity. Representations were also made that there are children held in adult prisons, contrary to international human rights standards and the
Children’s Act (Act No. 8 of 2001), which requires separation of children in prisons facilities. The Task Force was informed that this has been caused in part by the failure of most judicial officers to regularly inspect prisons as ex officio visiting justices as provided by section 72 of the Prisons Act (Cap 90 Laws of Kenya) and the Chief Justice’s Practice Directions 2008…,” continues the Final Report.

“There are a number of other women prisoners who go through a lot of hell while incarcerated. Their children may not know what goes on. I prayed to God daily that I leave prison alive and in good health and that is what exactly happened,” Mueni recalls vividly.

Asking for improvement with over-crowded conditions and the handling of children inside many of Kenya’s prisons, an independent 2010 Task Force on Judicial Reforms has begun the process to seek better treatment for the children of women prisoners according to the rule of law. “The Task Force was informed that the current prison facilities hold more than double their capacity. Representations were also made that there are children held in adult prisons, contrary to international human rights standards and the Children’s Act (Act No. 8 of 2001), which requires separation of children in prisons facilities.”

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