In the years leading up to Peter Kamau Ndung’u’s escape from Naivasha Maximum Security Prison, the death row inmate tried all he could to avoid the hangman’s noose.
He complained to human rights groups that he felt that his appeal would not get justice, petitioned the State to abolish the death sentence and even enrolled in school.
“Kenya being a God-fearing nation recognising the sanctity of human life, being an active member of the modern global society and pursuant to our aspirations to be a model nation in this region, should abolish the death penalty," he told the Catholic Information Service in 2004.
For a few years from 2006, Mr Ndung’u became a stellar student behind bars. Prison reforms had just been introduced by the Narc government. Strathmore University, through its community outreach programme, decided to sponsor the inmate for a Certified Public Accountants (CPA) course.
He not only excelled but was at the top of his class. Prison staff, motivated by his performance, quickly mobilised a harambee and raised Sh400,000 so that Ndung’u could enrol for a bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Nairobi.
If prison reforms were working at that time, Ndung’u was the poster child. However, deep inside, the inmate, who had been convicted of robbery with violence, knew he was just biding his time and everything he was doing was part of a long-term plot to escape.
“You know, that is the most painful part of my story. I came here because of something I didn’t do,” he told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in 2012.
He claimed police officers had come to his neighbourhood in 1999 looking for suspects in a crime that had been committed. All the young men who were present were rounded up but those who parted with money were set free.
“If you have money, you get freed. If you don’t have money, you get convicted. That’s how it happened,” he said.
His appeal having failed, Ndung’u went on with his education as a long-distance learner at UoN, only taken to the campus during exams and watched by two officers. He would finish his exams and be escorted back to Naivasha.
This arrangement went on for three years without a hitch. But during the final-year exams in December 2014, Ndung’u went into and never came out of the exam room. He simply vanished after spending 15 years behind bars. He has not been seen or heard from again.
Although it is six years since Ndungu’s notorious disappearance, the act provided lessons on how far prisoners can go in order to escape from legal custody.
In reality, it is not often that prisoners escape from custody, be it from prison or police cells, but escapes do happen. And when they happen, the focus is often on officers in charge, with serious questions about how a person can disappear from a heavily protected area.
One such case is the escape of confessed serial killer Masten Wanjala from Jogoo Road Police Station in Nairobi on October 12. The incident has hit the National Police Service so hard that all police stations in the city are under strict guidelines on handling suspects in their custody.
Under the new guidelines, which are more or less a reinforcement of Chapter 15 of the Police Standing Orders, no visitors will be allowed to see suspects after 6pm. Suppliers of food, too, will only be allowed in before 6pm.
And no suspect will be allowed to spend time with a visitor without the supervision of an officer, while serious offenders will not be assigned any duties outside their cell. The doors to the cells will also be opened or closed by two officers at the same time.
Although the new directives could seal the loopholes that enabled Wanjala to escape, the State has been unable to explain how such a high-value target slipped from its custody.
“It has been a very long time since a criminal escaped police custody in Nairobi. People now want to focus on this one incident to show how incapable we are as the police. This is just an isolated case. Mistakes always happen,” Nairobi Regional Commander Augustine Nthumbi told the Nation.
Although Mr Nthumbi’s view could be justified, the fact that the police have not arrested 17 of the 19 robbery-with-violence suspects who jumped out of a police lorry while being transported from Thika to the Industrial Area remand prison is worrying.
Only Amos Wanyoike Wanjiru and James Kamau have been charged over the incident while the rest remain at large.
“Any person who being in lawful custody escapes from that custody is guilty of a misdemeanor,” says section 123 of the Penal Code.
“Where in this code no punishment is specifically provided for any misdemeanor, it shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or with a fine or to both,” says section 36 of the penal code.
Yet though the repercussions of trying to escape from police or prison custody are specified in law, many prisoners are constantly plotting and devising new ways of gaining early freedom.
It is difficult to know the exact number of inmates who have tried to escape, escaped successfully or have been rearrested for escaping from legal custody. Prisons Commissioner-General Wycliffe Ogallo said he would get us the numbers once he returned to his office.
“I am travelling from Bomet at the moment,” he told the Nation on Friday evening.
But based on news reports, at least 87 prisoners have managed to escape from police stations and prison facilities across the country over the past two years. While some were rearrested and charged for attempting to escape from legal custody, a majority of the criminals are still out there.
In the past one month alone, 25 prisoners have made daring escapes from security facilities across the country. Of these, one was shot dead as he attempted to escape, while eight were recaptured and are facing new charges.
On October 4, nine criminals escaped from the Bomet Police Station after cutting metal grills in the back of their cells. Bomet Central sub-county police boss Musa Omar Imamai said the escapees, five adults and four juveniles, squeezed themselves out using the small opening they had created.
On October 6, police gunned down a prisoner in Vihiga after he attempted to escape their custody. The 26-year-old man, identified as Edwin Ndege, had been arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer and was to be arraigned at the Hamisi law courts. He was among 11 prisoners being taken to the courts from the Serem Police Station.
Before reaching the courts, the suspect, who had been handcuffed to another suspect, Benjamin Kidiahi, slipped his hand through the restraints and freed himself before sprinting towards the nearby Hamisi forest. Mr Ndege ignored orders to stop and continued running, prompting the police to shoot him dead.
And on September 26, some 14 capital offenders used a hacksaw to cut through the main doors that separated the Nyanyuki Maximim GK prison from perimeter walls and made a run for freedom at 2:52am.
“Officers from the station, Directorate of Criminal Investigations and Critical Infrastructure Protection Unit (CIPU) were mobilised and immediately rushed to the scene … about 3km west of the station,” said a report by officers from the nearby Nyanyuki Police Station.
Eight of the escapees were arrested the same night while six others were still at large at publication time. They include Mareri Tetkor, from Rumuruti, and Nangoye Lenawaso and Lereiyo Lekiare, both from Samburu, who were convicted of murder. The other three - Francis Nduati and Patrick Fundi, both from Laikipia, and James Sike, from Turkana - were serving time for robbery with violence.
It is still unclear if these six hardcore criminals will ever be arrested and returned behind bars to serve time for their crimes. But when the techniques used by inmates who escape from police or prison custody are examined, certain trends emerge.
Criminals in prison usually cut window grills and escape at night. Those in police custody mostly escape when in transit or just walk out of their cells when other petty offenders arrested in large groups are released en masse. Offenders can also escape when performing chores outside their stations.
For instance, sources told the Nation that Masten Wanjala, the suspected serial killer, walked out of the Jogoo Road Police Station at 9pm on Tuesday night when several suspects who had been arrested for not wearing face masks were freed.
But according to lawyer Danstun Omari, who is representing police officers Phillip Mbithi, Boniface Kamakia Mutuma and Precious Mwinzi, who are suspected of aiding Wanjala to escape, there was a power outage that day.
“Your honour, on the day the suspect escaped from police custody, there was no (electricity). The State failed to provide light, so the police officers on duty took shifts at 7pm in total darkness using the spotlight on their phones to count suspects,” Mr Omari told Senior Resident Magistrate Jane Kamau on Thursday.
What is clear, however, is that escaping from legal custody is not a spontaneous act, as it requires a lot of planning, sometimes in collaboration with some officers. Both the Kenya Prisons Service and the National Police Service carry out at least six headcounts of inmates in their custody per day.
Headcounts happen at meal times, in the morning, at night and when officers are changing their shifts. Inmates are also thoroughly searched before being admitted to their cells. The cells are checked every day to make sure they are in proper condition and all the grills are in good condition.
“First, we need to know who was complicit and who did not do his/her job in preventing such cases,” police spokesman Bruno Shioso responded when asked whether some officers help inmates to escape.
“Secondly, we also need to know what factors made it easier for the criminals to escape, perhaps our prisons or stations are not well equipped. Then from there, we can now take the next step of charging those complicit in a court of law.”
Additional reporting by Steve Otieno