Fearless female prisons officer who heads a jailhouse for men

Photo credit: Pool

Ms Beverly Lungatso, 51, is the second female to head a male maximum prison in Kenya. The first was the late Wanini Kireri of Shimo La Tewa, Mombasa. She heads the Kibos Maximum Male Prison which hosts about 800 inmates serving more than 20 years imprisonment, or life sentences.

Beverly started her career as a prisons constable in 1991 and has previously worked as Vihiga Prisons County Commander, Kodiaga Prison and Kakamega Women’s Prison Officer in Charge. She also served at the Lang’ata Women's Prison, Prisons Headquarters, Homa Bay Prisons, Kitale Women’s Prisons, Kamiti Youth Corrective Centre and Nairobi West Prisons.

Besides being a criminology and security management graduate, she holds a diploma in criminology and social order.

Was this your dream job? 
I never wanted to be a prisons officer. My dream was to be a lawyer but after completing my A-levels at Loreto High School, Matunda, I did not attain the required grade. I decided to try my luck as a prison warden after stumbling upon an advert on the newspaper. I was only 19.

At first, I never liked my job since many had associated it with those who have failed in academics, but I have grown to love it and I’m now convinced that it is my calling.

What does your job entail? 
My duties include frequent inspection visits to prison cells, and ensuring the inmates remain peaceful and orderly at all times, including during meal times. I also ensure they are supplied with personal items including tissue papers and soap.

As an administrator, it is also my job to see to it that all prisons programmes run smoothly, including prisoner’s rehabilitation and training of staff members. I also ensure the prison is secure for inmates and staff.

It must be challenging to be a woman in charge of a male maximum prison? 
Mine is a job like any other. One major requirement in this trade is firmness and fairness. The ranks I hold don’t come on a silver platter. You must work and those around you must feel your presence. My job also entails a number of sacrifices. Being a woman, we are judged differently. Many like to view us through the gender lens and not as administrators, so we have to prove ourselves worthy of the offices we hold, and fight for our space.

What are some of your achievements? 
One thing I’m proud of is the fact that I became the second female prison boss in charge of a male maximum prison in Kenya. Nobody thought I would succeed in that.

My other achievement is bringing order in the prison. For a long time, the individuals who held this office never lasted more than six months, leave alone one year. Strikes among inmates was the order of the day. So many people told me I would find myself out of a job in less than three months, but here I am two and a half years later!

Since my entry in 2020, the prison has been so peaceful. We rarely get to hear negative stories about the institution. I have introduced games and sports which have strengthened my relationship with the inmates. Nowadays, they refer to me as ‘mum’.

Lastly, it gives me great satisfaction to have proven that women can also take such challenging responsibilities and excel.

Kindly share your career highlights…
I have had a chance to travel abroad for assignments as a correctional adviser. I have been to Tubmanburg Prison in Liberia, and Bentiu and Awell prison in South Sudan.

I also had a chance to travel to India and the United Kingdom to further my studies on human rights and management of national crime records. Last year, I took a short course at Colorado State University for a first line leadership course.

Besides being a criminology and security management graduate, I also hold a diploma in criminology and social order.

What are some of the challenges that come with working in such a male dominated space?
One thing I’ve struggled with is that, having been brought up in a culture where men are considered the heads of the home, there are a number of things I am not allowed to do. That includes leading men. Getting this notion out of my head and viewing myself as a leader was not easy but I am glad I eventually did.

Another challenge is that I am required to do prison checks around the premises, including when the prisoners are being searched. Walking around in the cells is not safe for me as a woman but I have to do it. I always organise for security officers to walk around with me. Additionally, it is a violation of the male prisoners’ human rights for me to see them either naked or half naked.

When I first reported to work, the prisoners would remind me that this was a male maximum prison, and I would give them a stern reply that I was aware. Many times, I would walk around the cells, hands in my pocket, very relaxed and fearless to assert my authority.

I remember just a few weeks after reporting to my work station, the inmates went on strike and refused to do anything except waking up in the morning, basking out in the sun the entire day and retiring to their cells to sleep at night.

Every other staff member was scared, and it was my duty to act. I went to the open field, stood right in the middle, closed my eyes and ordered the prisoners to get back to their blocks before I opened my eyes, failure to which each of them would face the consequences. By the time I opened my eyes, everyone was gone!

What keeps you going?
I learn every single day. My constant interactions with the inmates helps me understand them more. I have also attended a number of trainings locally and abroad. This has helped me be more courageous in my job.

What are some of the lessons you have learnt over the years?
Once you have the will, you can do anything. Be humble, don’t misuse your power and believe in yourself. Seek the advice of those who have served before you, put God first, and be a team player.

Your future plans?
I am looking forward to rising higher up the ranks. I also want to mentor other women to take up such roles and be better than me.