Police Reservists

Kenya Police Reservists on November 19, 2021 at the scene where three terror convicts who escaped from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison were arrested.

| Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

Jailbreaks: How Kenya inmates buy their freedom

What you need to know:

  • There are fears that the recent escape of three terrorism convicts from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison was aided by guards. 
  • After their escape, several warders were arrested as initial investigations suggested laxity and incompetence on their side.

It took *Emmanuel about two months of observing the prison warders’ routine to come up with an escape plan.

He could no longer stand the “bad food, inhumane living conditions and routine mistreatment” after serving half of his one-year sentence. 

Emmanuel hatched the plan with the help of some friendly guards.

“I had been assigned to the prison farm. We would go to the farm every morning, break for lunch and return in the afternoon,” he said.

“I discovered there was no prison fence on that side of the farm. We had also earned the trust of the warders. They would give us their phones to talk to people outside prison.”

Emmanuel’s accomplices identified a corner at the farm where they were to drop civilian clothes.

Next to the farm was a road, so all Emmanuel needed was to change his attire and melt into the crowd.

“I went straight to the spot on the day of the escape and found the clothes. I waited for everyone to get busy, changed clothes and briskly walked across the road. A vehicle was waiting just metres away. I calmly got in and secured my freedom,” he recalled.

“I had six months to go but just didn’t see myself remaining there one more day. There were risks but I had everything planned. I traversed many counties as I headed to the border. It was even easier to cross to a neighbouring country.”

Emmanuel has now been free for several years. 

His case shows the extent rogue government officers are willing to go in aiding inmates gain freedom in exchange of money.

Terrorism convicts

It adds credence to fears that the recent escape of three terrorism convicts from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison was aided by guards. 

After their escape, several warders were arrested as initial investigations suggested laxity and incompetence on their side.

The Daily Nation has established that many jailbreaks are a result of corruption, guards’ frustrations and a cavalier attitude.

Prison officers interviewed say they are pushed into committing these crimes by circumstances.

“An officer guarding terrorism convicts or suspects is the least paid in the disciplined forces. With the little pay, you are expected to take care of yourself and your family yet things out there keep changing by the day. The cost of living has shot up and school fees is high. What am I expected to do?” one warder asked rhetorically.

“An inmate is willing to part with Sh100,000 to help him escape. You weigh your options. What can this money do for me? Many guards will grab this opportunity. Like any other human beings, we want the best for ourselves.” 

Others say lack of motivation is to blame for prison security lapses. 

“Those who enjoy the work are our seniors. They have many privileges,” the guard said. 

He added that senior officers at Kamiti have been the beneficiaries of anti-terrorism training while those who handle the prisoners daily have been ignored.

“The world is constantly evolving so we need that kind of training. These courses can even be done at the prison. Everyone needs to be empowered,” the warder said. 

Scheme by inmates

Another warder says they never get any allowances for escorting capital offenders from one point to another, making some of his colleagues turn to criminal activities. 

“You are tasked with escorting a terror suspect from Nairobi to Mombasa by road on an empty stomach. If lucky, you will have a soda and slices of bread. You get the prisoner to the Coast, and immediately begin your journey back to Nairobi. Ideally, you are supposed to get a night out allowance, but there is no such thing,” he said. 

A female guard blames the security lapses on communication breakdown between junior officers and their bosses.

“Fear is installed in us during training. You are not supposed to question your seniors. What they say goes. This must be one of the colonial relics we inherited,” she said. 

“If I stumble on information regarding a possible scheme by inmates, I am not free to work with the senior officer. Juniors like us actually need to book an appointment to see our bosses. With all these barriers, how are we supposed to work?” 

Not all escapes are, however, aided by guards. 

Prisoners in some cases exploit gaps in the correctional system and centres to their advantage.

Professional Criminologists Association of Kenya chairman, Munene Mugambi, partly blames the problem on the use of cells built during the colonial era to hold high-value inmates. Other prisons lack proper fencing.

The loopholes point to a neglected State department.

“The National Government Constituency Development Funds should have addressed some of these concerns a long time ago,” he said.

Security lapse

Mr Mugambi, however, admits that some guards can do anything – including lending their uniforms and tools of trade – to inmates for quick bucks.

“Weak supervisory systems allow phones and other contraband to make their way to prisons. The phones are used to steal from the public. It is not surprising to hear that a terrorism convict has escaped from a maximum security holding centre. Terrorists have powerful networks and financial muscles that can be activated within and outside their confines,” Mr Mugambi told the Daily Nation.

Prof Charles Kyalo Nziona, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi, feels the rise in the number of escapes points to a morally bankrupt society. 

“Breaking from prison is a security lapse. We have been told there are security cameras in and around Kamiti. It means some people at the prison must have been feeding from the three men,” Prof Nziona said. 

“It is unfortunate that the conscience of many Kenyans went out the window a long time ago.”

He blames greed for what the country is experiencing. 

“Everyone is looking for quick money without caring whether their mothers will be bombing victims. Loose morals, lack of integrity as espoused in Chapter Six of our Constitution and people cheating in exam are some examples. Others even facilitate the issuing of fake certificates to quack doctors, forgetting that these are the same people who will treat their children,” he said.

The prisons enterprise programme that is intended to generate revenue and keep inmates engaged has stalled. 

The evidence of this is in the items on display at Kamiti and Prison headquarters showrooms in Nairobi. 

A visitor will notice there are no new items for sale.

“Our rehabilitation programmes have been out of software. Inmates are therefore idle,” an officer said. 

Hijacked projects

The officer added that operational differences between then Commissioner-General of Prisons Wycliffe Ogalo and Correctional Services Principal Secretary Zeinab Hussein affected the programme.

The enterprise department did not receive any funding because of a “cartel” that had reportedly hijacked projects.

“Rehabilitation, farms and industries are at a standstill due to lack of funds, thus defeating the responsibilities of prisons,” a report on the operational management challenges in executing the Kenya Prisons Mandate released in March says.

Without proper rehabilitation, inmates risk getting caught up in a vicious cycle of recidivism, reconviction and social rejection.

The report also identifies 11 pending projects that have not been allocated funds in two financial years, putting the security of prisons in jeopardy. 

They include the construction of perimeter walls at Garissa, Machakos, Busia, Shimo la Tewa and Vihiga prisons.

The report adds that a Sh3.5 million kitty that had been set aside for capacity building of 28,000 employees to align their skills with global standards had not been spent by March.

The kitty was to benefit 56 officers in the rank of assistant commissioner of prisons and above.

They were to be trained on strategic leadership development.

Some 304 others, from the rank of chief inspector to superintendent, were expected to be trained on managerial skills.

According to the report, the slow career progression and succession management have resulted in low morale in the service and management gaps – officers performing duties of ranks higher than theirs – thus compromising services.