Inmates

Inmates at the Kamiti Maximum Prison.

| File | Nation Media Group

From 90 to 15 years: How prison paralegals are shaping the criminal justice system

When they were each handed a 90-year sentence by an Iten court in 2019, five family members stood transfixed. They were speechless, lost in trance until they were nudged back to reality and out of the room.

They had been found guilty on six counts of cattle rustling, with each carrying 15 years. It was a huge blow to Joseph Siwaita, his two teenage sons, a nephew, Lokoritapa Lomerisia, and brother-in-law, Karotich Kamarinyang.

Relatives who attended the court session would only stare blankly as they were whisked away by court orderlies.

“I was shocked when the ruling was read out to us,” Siwaita, 57, told the Nation at the Naivasha Maximum Security Prison.

A senior officer at the correctional facility offered: “He had been separated from his sons. He could not eat for days, asking to be reunited with them.”

“He was heartbroken, suffering anxiety despite a counselor at the prison trying to reassure him. Eventually, we bowed to pressure and reunited the father with his children.”

The reunion calmed the father. At last, he could sleep.

“It was fulfilling. We could comfort each other despite having lost hope of ever living the jail alive,” he said.

What troubled him was the fact that his sons were minors at the time of their sentencing. But with a limited educational background, an appeal had been a huge challenge.

“We momentarily lost hope of ever getting out of jail. We had hit a brick wall. We came from a community that knows little about the legal process,” offered Siwaita.

But things a turn for the better in June this year when a paralegal team of fellow inmates helped them appeal the sentence after making submissions on their behalf.

By sheer luck, the two teenagers, aged 16 and 17, were said to have been underage at the time of the sentencing and released. The 90-year jail term for the other three was reduced to 15 years.

“Sharing a cell with my children had eaten up my confidence. Seeing my sons walking to freedom was a heartwarming moment,” said Mr Siwaita.

He’s now serving a 15-year jail term alongside two family members, with officers manning the correctional facilities admitting that his health had steadily improved since his children were released.

“He could barely eat when his sons were also locked up. We had to do a lot of cajoling to make him eat. The release was the turning point,” said a senior officer.

Siwaita recalled the moment that landed his family in trouble towards the end of 2016 after a cattle rustling incident in Tiaty, West Pokot County.

“My brother-in-law was confronted and shot by raiders. He was first attended to at a local dispensary before he was transferred to Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret. When we visited him, we were arrested,” he said.

Kamarinyang was treated and then moved to the police station. Siwaita’s sons were later picked up from home.

“I was shot by raiders from neighbouring communities,” said Mr Kamarinyang. Despite them pleading their innocence, the court found them guilty.

They are now slowly adjusting to life behind bars and, with a reduced sentence, they are hopeful of a better future. “All is not lost. We might move to the Court of Appeal. But, for now, we are at least optimistic of better days ahead,” said Kamarinyang, 20.

“It’s almost impossible for relatives to raise funds to visit us. We are getting accustomed to the situation,” he added.

None of them have ever stepped inside a classroom and are hoping to start schooling through prison classes. They could hardly speak in Swahili.

The officer in charge of the correctional facility, Mr Hassan Tari, said the three were coping well.

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