A fresh start for former convicts

Kelvin Mwikya, (second right, front row), the founder of Philemon Foundation, with some of the project’s beneficiaries. Mr Mwikya runs a rehabilitation centre for former prisoners at Waithaka, Nairobi. Photo/STEPHEN MUDIARI

Cynics sneer at former Vice-President Moody Awori’s prison reforms, arguing that jails were never meant to be hotels.

Uncle Moody, as he was fondly called, gained fame — you might call it notoriety — for his relentless agitation for inmates’ conjugal rights over and above replacing their archaic khaki uniforms with striped ones and giving them television sets — a far cry from the harsh life that hitherto defined incarceration.

It was also under the benign VP’s watch that the sleek ‘Moody Hoppa’ buses replaced the grim caged trucks that were once prisoners’ standard transport between jails and courts.

Notwithstanding public scepticism over the perceived pampering of inmates, partners in the rehabilitation of serving and ex-inmates are unanimous that mistreating inmates only embitters and hardens them. They actually feel that ill-treating inmates could be a factor in the high rate of recidivism whereby freed prisoners return to jail over repeat offences.

The director of Prisons programmes in charge of rehabilitation, Mrs Mary Khaemba, told the Saturday Nation that it was unrealistic to expect to reform inmates living under such dehumanised conditions and whose sole preoccupation was their sufferings.

And it can be as dehumanising as experienced firsthand by Mr Kelvin Mwikya, the founder of Philemon Foundation that runs Kenya’s only halfway house (place for accommodating and integrating ex-prisoners into society).

Moreover, the traditional crime and punishment approach not only negates the reform spirit of recent years, but it also ignores the real reasons that land people in jail.

Experts blame imprisonment and recidivism on two key factors: abject poverty that creates the so-called survival offenders; they engage in petty crime to meet their daily needs, and social stigma, which renders ex-inmates pariahs in their communities.

The stigma former prisoners face is such that even members of their families treat them with distrust and shun them. Dogged by suspicion, they find it difficult to reintegrate in society after serving their jail sentences. Prison becomes a more welcome abode, hence that cliché headline Jailbird flies back home, so beloved of editors.

Mr Mwikya suffered the stigma of bearing the ex-inmate tag firsthand — forcing him to literally seek readmission to prison. On being freed from jail after a successful appeal against conviction over trumped up robbery with violence charges, the only relative he could count on in Nairobi turned him away at the ungodly hour of 10 o’clock in the night.

His cousin’s chilling words — “my place has no place for you to sleep” — still ring in his ears years after he carved himself a niche in ex-prisoners’ rehabilitation. Stigma, suspicion, rejection and lack of equal opportunities are ex-convicts’ lot. After his cousin showed him the door, Mr Mwikya’s heart sank when he walked straight into police on patrol. As they bombarded him with questions, both relevant and irrelevant, like “Who are you?” “Where are you from?”

“Who is your mother?” Who is your father?” “When did you die?” “When did you resurrect?” Mr Mwikya, who had been released less than 24 hours ago, saw jail staring at his face, yet again. Flashing back to Athi River Prison, where he had served three out of a 13-year sentence, his questions to freed inmates, who had come back to jail soon after release came back to haunt him — and especially their standard response: “Huko nje hakukaliki (out there is unliveable).”

As the police did their rounds with him on board, he was praying: “God, I was released today, only to go back to jail?” Still, he resolved: “I’ll tell them I’m from jail, and if they want to kill me, so be it.” No sooner did he say he was from jail, than the police reacted: “Huyu ni mmoja wao (This is one of them).”

The criminal tag was not about to fall off any time soon. For the first time, it was clear to him why so many freed inmates returned to jail so often, so soon. It was all about prejudice and stigma; once a criminal, always a criminal. Luckily for Mr Mwikya, the body search only yielded a Bible, correspondence course certificates, the Prisons release letter and the skills certificate for the Grade I carpentry course earned while he served his sentence.

The Bible convinced one of the officers to take him to the Robert Musomba Church in Dandora, and being a Friday night, it was open for ‘Kesha’. “Make sure this guy prays,” was the police parting shot as they dumped him at the church. With nowhere to go, he spent a fortnight at the church in near-starvation conditions, too petrified to disclose that he had just been released from jail.

But how could he, given that he had just been rejected by his cousin and had just had a close shave with the police? Although he had been born again in prison, the trauma of rejection was overwhelming. And it did not matter that he was in church. “Words of prayer could not come from my mouth. I could not share my predicament with anybody because I feared rejection.

After two weeks and on the verge of starvation, I decided to go back to prison. I walked from Dandora to the Prisons headquarters and I met the commissioner at the entrance.” Without hesitation, a starving Mr Mwikya told the Prisons boss: “Afande, niko na shida. (Sir, I have a problem)… I was released and I have nowhere to go.”

He was taken to Prisons chaplain Elizabeth Mwangangi, who, on Mr Mwikya’s plea, offered tea with bread before he had the strength to explain his case. He wanted back to jail… Aha, Aha! And in the evening, Mrs Mwangangi took him to the Industrial Area Remand Home, where he was told: “We don’t put in people without a warrant of arrest.”

A fresh start

Mrs Mwangangi took him to her house and told him: “If my husband agrees to help you, we will help you, but if he says No, you go.” The Mwangangis gave him fare to go back to his home in Kitui, and although he was very happy to reunite with his father, “the family was in horrible state”, forcing him to come back to Nairobi to put his carpentry skills gained in prison to work.

On September 2, 1996, Mr Mwikya went back to the Mwangangis, who rented a room for him and generally set him up. They linked him to the AIC Church Ziwani where, he says, he got a lot of support. Determined that neither he — nor anyone else — should ever have to go back to jail, he bought two mattresses and opened his 10 by 10 room to ex-convicts he was in touch with, just to break the “jailbird flies back home” jinx.

At one point, they were so many (eight of them) and he thought to himself: “If police found eight ex-prisoners [in a room], they’d think we were planning a robbery.” The Philemon Foundation, which runs Kenya’s first and only halfway house for ex-convicts in Waithaka, a Nairobi suburb, is inspired by one of the shortest books in the Bible — St Paul’s letter to Philemon.

In the letter, the apostle pleads with Philemon, whose slave Onesimus had run away, and somehow landed in jail where he met Paul, to accept him back “as a dear brother” in that Onesimus had now become a Christian. “The message is simple; accept us back,” says Mr Mwikya, as he explains why he chose the name Philemon for his outfit.

“I asked God what kind of organisation I should set up for prisoners, ex-prisoners and their children,” Mr Mwikya to Saturday Nation. Inasmuch as Mr Mwikya yearns “to see many Philemons” the structures to accommodate them are for now non-existent. And although a number of charities are involved in rehabilitating ex-prisoners, their efforts remain minuscule, making a comprehensive aftercare programme key to prison reforms.

Mr Matthias Fettback, the executive director of the Faraja Trust, says, “The Kenyan Government has no rehabilitation programme to talk of, compared to Germany where three quarters of the prisons budget goes to rehabilitation. Developed countries realise that “the cost of crime to society is enormous,” he says.

Unlike Kenya where most rehabilitation work in and out of prison is done by charities, social workers in Germany are appointed to work with inmates on a one-to-one basis. Although Faraja runs rehabilitation programmes for inmates in various prisons including Nairobi West, the Lang’ata Women’s Prison and the Nairobi Remand Home in Industrial Area, with courses open as early as 6am, there is no follow-up once the inmate is released.

And, because there is no official structure to follow up freed inmates, most don’t want to be identified as having been in jail, Mr Fettback says. At the same time, NGOs like Faraja “are too small” to do a statistical survey on who might benefit from rehabilitation.

“By the time we take statistics, kanjo (City Council askaris) have already arrested them for offences as petty as chang’aa brewing,” Mr Fettback says. Jails end up crowded by petty offenders — a situation that is compounded by shoddy investigations by the police. And then “cases take forever to be disposed of,” thanks to an overworked Judiciary.

The result is dissatisfaction among inmates, who are subjected to torture and unreasonable bail terms — all of which only serve to harden prisoners. Partners in the rehabilitation of prisoners have been lobbying for the decongestion of prisons, and their prayer might just have been answered by the passage of a new Constitution, which gives the ex-mural option priority over incarceration for petty crime.

According to Mr Fettback, jails at the moment are filled by petty thieves, pick-pockets and chang’aa distillers; “can they do community work, instead?” he poses, adding: “Recidivism upgrades a petty offender to a big offender. It is a Mafia structure where big offenders recruit young offenders, and unless Kenya is careful, it may run into big problems.”

Says Fettback: “Most offenders are single mothers. If they leave prison without skills, they’ll probably go back to prison. The Nairobi Remand Home is full of youth and women. Women commit crime because of harassment. “They’re the mothers. If you jail them, their kids drop out of school. If the mother is in prison, chances are the children will also go to jail. When you go to prison and come back and there’s nothing there for you, you find yourself back in the hands of the law again.”

Against this backdrop, stakeholders have been working on the Aftercare of Offenders Bill, 2010, which, when it becomes law, will cater for the creation of aftercare services and regulate organisations that provide such services. Ms Khaemba said the final evaluation and validation of the Bill was done in May “and it’s just waiting to go to Parliament”.

Core to the envisaged law is the halfway house, defined as “a transitional house for accommodation of ex-offenders or persons in need of rehabilitative services for purposes of reintegration into the society”. The draft defines Aftercare Service (AC) as embracing “all the rehabilitative services given to offenders, ex-offenders and their families by the AC service providers and other Non-State Actors… directed at equipping them with capacities to cope with life without re-offending and making them law abiding citizens.”

Breaking with the past

The document says: “The nature and type of the aftercare service to be accorded to an individual shall be determined after conducting a needs and risk assessment by the service provider” — a departure from the current situation where inmates receive skills that are often irrelevant to their communities’ and their own needs.

Head of programmes at the Faraja Trust Mary Kuria explains: “We have over-educated our people with no future and with a potential to be criminals. When such youths land in jail, we have to empower them with skills that change their lives.” Traditional skills such as pottery and woodwork are irrelevant to the dot.com prisoner, and the way forward is introducing them to modern skills such as computers and art. Inmates trained by Faraja have had their paintings exhibited in Switzerland.

Together with the Prisons authorities, Faraja has introduced computer courses at the Lang’ata Women’s Prison and the Kamiti YCTC for convicts serving at least three-year terms. Sources mentioned a Prisons Aid Association that used to follow up and help ex-prisoners, but which, they claim, collapsed because of corruption.

Mr Mwikya sees the current reforms spearheaded by the Office Vice-President (OVP) as aimed at reactivating the association. “We are asking the OVP to reactivate the Prisons Aid Association. If the aftercare policy becomes law, then there will be a mechanism to help ex-prisoners,” said the ex-convict, who runs a carpentry workshop for former inmates in Waithaka.

The foundation offers 10 counselling lessons within a six-month residential programme. He faults current interventions, including church-led ones, as irrelevant. Convinced that rehabilitation of prisoners should start in jail, Mr Mwikya says: “Churches don’t know how to handle released prisoners and this is unfortunate. A lot of evangelistic work (goes on), but when they come out, they (churches) don’t know what to do with the prisoners.”

In a tragic-comic example and indictment of misdirected zeal for convicts’ souls, detached from their physical wellbeing, Mr Mwikya told Saturday Nation how various religious groups swamped prisons with Bibles, only for them to be used as toilet paper! Under the envisaged law, halfway houses shall have a social worker(s) as part of the staff “to address the social welfare of the beneficiaries in relation to resettlement needs of the beneficiaries.”

The halfway house will also have an internal committee to asses the needs of the beneficiaries. They will also have recreational programmes and training facilities for the beneficiaries besides accommodation. They will also have the right to sell the produce of the beneficiaries on their behalf and to undertake any form of transaction on behalf of the inmates to promote their welfare.

“Any service provider offering accommodation to any persons for purposes of aftercare service shall be required to seek approval from the Ministry” — in this case, the Office of the Vice-President.