Being on Death Row in Kenya

Being on death row in Kenya is not for the faint hearted. Currently there are approximately 2500 inmates on death row in Kenya, scattered across the 5 maximum security prisons, Kamiti, Naivash, Kingongo, Kibos and Shimo la tewa.

Living conditions are horrendous, a cell that can barely accomodate 4 single mattresses holds upto 14 prisoners at Kamiti. The well known notorious G block has 59 cells for inmates but 2 are set aside for the guards who come on night shift to sleep in. This frankly raises the first question, why are the guards given rooms to sleep in when they are actually on duty? What are they paid for? To sleep?

If an inmate were to contract a disease that is air borne then the chances of all the inmates in that cell getting it are very high due to the close proximity that everyone sleeps. Lice called ‘chawas’ are commonplace and do not allow the inmates to sleep peacefully, constantly crawling over their bodies and biting them.

There was once a case of all inmates in one cell contracting TB. The authorities did not diagnose the first one due to negligence and laziness. Rather than believe in prevention is better than cure, they say it is my lunch hour, come back tomorrow.

Medicine is constantly in low supply, the prison dispensary stocking a few drugs for flu, typhoid, diaorrhea, constipation, hypertension and vomiting. Most of the time a prisoner is given a prescription to go buy the drugs out of his own pocket even though he is a guest of the state.

In rare circumstances, a prisoner may be referred to Kenyatta hospital, the only referral hospital in Nairobi, the largest in the region for ailments that have persisted for a long time, a very long time! Even though this is the largest hospital in the region, they do not have all medication and again, the doctors tell the inmates to buy the medicine out of their own pockets. Common drugs such as Glucophage, Cardace, Valium, Augmentin, are not available.

Even if a prisoner is lucky enough to be referred to Kenyatta, he will have to give a bribe to the authorities manning the hospital in order to be availed escorts to take him to hospital. These bribes may go up to Ksh1,000 ($12.)

There is a cartel in place here, run between the prison guards and other inmates who work in the hospital in the prison.

If one has been referred, they go speak to the inmate who writes up the list of those referred on certain day and gives his Ksh200 to ensure his name is in the top 10. He will then go see one of the corporals in charge of running the hospital (there are 2) and give him Ksh500 to ensure his referral is not put at the bottom of the pile the following day. He will then go see the senior sergent in charge of officer discipline and give him Ksh200 to ensure he is not told the following morning there are no escorts.

Diet in Kenyan prisons is horrible. No one expects it to be upto any good standards in any prison worldwide, but in Kenyan prisons, one may not even feed the food given to prisoners to their worst enemy’s emancipated dog. It is monotonous, non nourishing and cooked poorly. Day in day out, this is what prisoners in all Kenyan prisons eat:

BREAKFAST- 1 cup of porridge made out of maize meal and water, no sugar.

LUNCH- 2 leaves of kale (a leaf that looks like spinach, native to Kenya,) 1 potato, 1 cup of ugali (a mixture of maize meal and water.)

DINNER- 1 cup of beans, 1 cup of ugali.

1 cup is a quarter litre of water. 3 times a week, every prisoner is given 1 piece of meat, the size of an adult’s thumb and everyday, every prisoner is given a quarter teaspoon of cooking fat. Once a week, the ugali is replaced with rice.

The rations above are for prisoners on death row, prisoners that go to work are fed a bit more. It is common to see prisoners die of malnutrition.

Sick inmates, those with HIV, TB, diabetes, hypertension, cancer etc are given more food too according to recommendations from the doctor, but again, the doctor has to be bribed to ‘prescribe’ more food.

Prison wardens are generally harsher on prisoners sentenced to death compared to the others. They tend to conduct more searches on blocks where death row inmates stay. It is known that inmates or death row are generally hard headed as they have nothing much to live for. Even though the actual act of hanging is no longer carried out, prisoners on death row are not allowed to work so are idle day in day out.

Prisoners have linked up with some corrupt prison wardens to smuggle in contraband such as phones, cigarettes (smoking is not allowed in Kenyan prisons,) cannabis, heroine etc.

The phones are used to con civillians as the authorities can not do much to them. The prisons department tried to install network jammers in Kamiti but failed as it is close to town and affected neighbours.

Conning has led to some prisoners becoming instant millionaires leading to another huge problem.

It is a known fact that homosexuality is rife in prisons, but in Kamiti, this is an understatement. Grown men actually ‘buy’ young boys to provide them with sexual pleasure. Some even go to the extent of ‘marrying!’ This has led to rise in the number of HIV positive prisoners. One may have come in negative, but will leave or die positive. Many refuse to be tested or swallow their pills because they have lost all hope.

As I said in my previous article, the offences that carry the death penalty in Kenya are treason, murder and robbery with violence. Currently there is no prisoner in Kenya on death row charged with treason.

Robbery with violence is tried at a magistrates court, and the accused person is not availed any counsel to represent them. They must ‘fight’ for themselves. All court proceedings are in English, yet 95% of prisoners do not speak English, forget know the law.

Those convicted by the magistrates court have to appeal the ruling at the high court of appeal. This wait may take up to 10 years! If their first appeal is dismissed, they may appeal to the court of appeal which once again has a similar waiting period. At appeal the accused may opt to have a counsel represent them but many choose not to as the lawyers provided are underpaid so do not do a thorough job, they are normally those that have just qualified or are doing miserably in their practice.

Murder is tried at the high court and the accused person must be represented by a counsel, either their own or one paid by the state. They are the same as those mentioned above hence they do a very poor job. If convicted they appeal to the court of appeal.

The new constitution made a provision for accused persons and even convicts to apply for bond but the conditions imposed by the courts are extremely harsh hence not many can afford it. The average trial time is 4 years.

Source: Op-ed by Rashi Bhalsani. Mr. Bhalsani is a graduate from Reading University in England. He was born and brought up in Kenya. Mr. Bhalsani advocates abolishing the death penalty worldwide and releasing back into society rehabilitated convicts. June 24, 2013

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