Mystery of inmates who disappear without a trace

Kamiti Maximum Prison. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

What you need to know:

  • In the latest case, 19 robbery with violence suspects jumped out of a police lorry on their way to Industrial Area.

  • Analysis of the local escape incidents reveals most of them were fairly basic.

  • Most involve bailing out of moving prison vans, such as last week’s case.
  • Others who escaped from their cells either did so by cutting the ventilation chutes, or by digging through the prison walls.

Just how difficult is it to escape from a Kenyan prison facility or vehicle and disappear without trace? Not quite as difficult as it should be, if the cases of successful prison breaks analysed by the Sunday Nation are anything to go by.


Consider this fact: On May 23, 2015, three criminals serving life sentences escaped from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. The convicts were Joseph Kinyanjui, John Kamau Gathoni and Isaac Karanja Mwangi.

Two weeks later, on June 6, 2015, across the ocean in the US, two murder convicts, Richard Matt and David Sweat, broke free from Clinton Correctional Facility in New York.

Both sets of escapees have one thing in common: They sawed their way to their undeserved freedom using hacksaws that had been clandestinely passed to them. But, this is where the comparisons end.

The New York convicts sparked a multi-million-dollar manhunt that involved more than 1,300 law enforcement officers. Three weeks later, Matt was shot dead while Sweat was shot and captured by the police.

On the other hand, four years on, the Kamiti three are still enjoying their ill-gotten freedom, and it seems the search for them has gone cold.

We could not get accurate figures from the Kenya Prisons Service or the National Police Service on the number of convicts on the run, but a count by the Sunday Nation of the incidents reported in the media over the past two decades indicated that as from 2000 there had been more than 30 successful jail breaks in which more than 150 convicts or remandees escaped.

Some of the escapees were hardcore criminals who had been convicted of capital offences including murder, rape or robbery with violence. More worrying, as illustrated by the case of the Kamiti three, is the fact that a good number of these criminals have not been rearrested and are most probably menacing the society once again.


The latest case of a breakout occurred a week ago when 19 robbery with violence suspects jumped to their freedom from a moving police lorry as they were being transported to Industrial Area Remand Prison. The prison authorities are yet to comment on the issue.

This is the second highest number of convicts or remandees to escape from custody after the April 2004 incident at Naivasha Maximum Prison where 28 jailbirds escaped.

Some of the famous prison breaks in the world are stuff of legend. For example, Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman who is currently on trial in the US, escaped from high security prisons twice through tunnels that had been dug by associates right to his cell.

But an analysis of the local incidents reveals most of them were fairly basic. In fact, most involve bailing out of moving prison vans, such as last week’s case. “This points to either laxity or collusion on the part of the prison officers transporting them,” said Mr George Musamali, a former policeman. “Alternatively, the ease with which the convicts break the grills of a prison lorry could point to the poor design of the vehicles transporting prisoners,” he added.

It’s not difficult for inmates to break out of prison cells either. The Sunday Nation’s analysis shows that most of the prisoners who escaped from their cells either did so by cutting the ventilation chutes, or by digging through the prison walls.


“This points to a dire need for modern correctional facilities,” said Mr Richard Tuta, an independent security analyst.

There are roughly 57,000 inmates in Kenya spread in some 101 correctional centres around the country, most of which were built during the colonial era.

Expectedly, conditions in these decrepit facilities are dire, and are made even worse by overcrowding.

 A report prepared by the National Council on the Administration of Justice and released in 2017 by Chief Justice David Maraga said convicts and remandees will probably contract either tuberculosis or scabies or diarrhoea, the most common diseases in prison, while serving time.

The situation is further compounded by the harsh treatment prisoners sometimes go through in the hands of warders.

In September 2000, six inmates were bludgeoned to death by warders at King’ong’o prison in Nyeri.

When two prisoners escaped from Malindi GK Prison last year, they sent an SMS to a journalist saying the harsh treatment meted out on prisoners at the institution had forced them to flee.

In addition, delays in hearing cases and perceived unfair sentences handed out to convicts are also contributing factors that force suspects or convicts to breakout.


July 5, 2019: Some 19 robbery with violence suspects escaped after breaking free from a vehicle transporting them to Industrial Area Remand Prison.

May 21, 2019: A theft convict serving a one-year jail term escaped from the Thika Main Prison halfway through his term.

May 3, 2019: A robbery with violence suspect was shot dead after he attempted to wrest a firearm from a police officer while being transferred from Kangundo Police Station to Machakos GK Prison.

 March 17, 2019: A convict with mental illness serving a life sentence at Manyani Maximum Security Prison in Voi escaped only to be rearrested two days later as he tried to sneak back into the prison.

February 7, 2019: Two suspected drug traffickers and five robbery with violence suspects escaped from Makongeni Police Station in Thika. The suspects cut off the cell’s ventilation grilles.

November 28, 2018: Six remandees at Migori GK Prison escaped by jumping from a moving police vehicle and disappeared into a nearby sugar plantation as they were being ferried from Rongo Law Courts to the prison. Two were rearrested.

June 18, 2018: Two prisoners serving between 10 and 15 years jail term escaped from the Malindi GK Prison and sent a text to a journalist to break the news. They said they were being subjected to torture.

August 16, 2018: Timothy Lesereti, who was serving a three-month sentence, escaped from Maralal GK Prison allegedly with the aid of a prison warder who was charged with forgery of judicial documents and aiding five prisoners to escape, a charge he denied. The case continues.

December 11, 2017: Francis Musyoka Mutuku, a former police officer, who was serving a life sentence, escaped from Siaya GK Prison, leading to the interdiction of seven warders.

February 22, 2017: Five prisoners made a daring escape on the Machakos-Kangudo road after jumping from a prison vehicle on its way to Kangundo Law Courts.

January 19, 2017: Six prisoners aged between 15 and 21 escaped the Garissa Police Station. They were facing different charges ranging from defilement to stock theft, but not a capital offence.

August 4, 2016: Four convicts, among them a hard-core criminal indicted for killing a fellow inmate, escaped from the Kibos Prison. They were serving jail terms ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment.

April 18, 2016: Three inmates facing robbery with violence charges escaped from Isiolo GK Prison through a ventilation hole in the cells.

February 25, 2016: Caroline Wanjiru Munene, facing a charge of stealing a gun from a police officer in Itabua, Embu, escaped from Embu GK Prison.

January 24, 2016: Warders at Kamiti Maximum Prison fired in the air to thwart an attempt by an inmate serving a life sentence to escape after he got out of his cell.

December 30, 2015: Four suspected robbers and drug traffickers scaled the wall of Siakago court cells and escaped, before one was rearrested. They hid in a thicket. Three of them disappeared.

October 8, 2015: An inmate at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, William Muiruri Meta, escaped from the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) where he was receiving treatment for injuries he incurred at the hands of a prison warder. He was serving his 14-year jail term for robbery with violence.

July 14, 2015: Five prisoners, among them three Britons, linked to terrorist groups, escaped from Bungoma Prison. Two who vanished were capital offenders, while the foreigners were in remand for being in the country illegally and were being questioned over possible links to terrorism.

May 23, 2015: Three prisoners serving life sentences escaped from Kamiti Maximum Prison. Joseph Kinyanjui, John Kamau Gathoni and Isaac Karanja Mwangi escaped by cutting grilles during a blackout at the prison.

January 31, 2015: Five inmates of Eldoret Prison in Uasin Gishu escaped after overpowering two armed warders in a prison vehicle transporting them to the Kabarnet Law Courts in Baringo. Some of the escapees were death row inmates.

December 17, 2014: Peter Kamau Ndung’u, a Bachelor of Commerce student and Naivasha Maximum Prison inmate on life sentence, escaped while he had gone to sit an exam at University of Nairobi. A robbery with violence convict, Ndung’u had been held up as a poster boy of prison reforms when he came to the national limelight in 2010 after breezing through his accountancy exams while he was behind bars. He is still on the run.

March 20, 2012: Gilbert Mwangi Ibrahim, a robbery suspect who was serving a three-month jail term, escaped from Embu GK Prison mysteriously. He had only served about one month before he fled.

October 26, 2011: Six remand prisoners, among them four capital offence suspects, escaped from Eldoret GK Prison. The remandees went through the ceiling and drilled a hole in a prison block.

October 14, 2011: Five capital offences suspects escaped from Embu Remand Prison while being taken to court. Richard Mbogo Ndagara alias Ibilisi, an escapee who was rearrested, told the court that a police officer had aided their escape.

September 21, 2011: Six hard-core criminals attempted to escape from Kamiti Maximum Prison. The prisoners had cut grilles in their cells and had already come out when a warder on duty spotted them.

August 7, 2011: Six remandees escaped from police custody in Webuye while two were shot dead in the process. The remandees faced capital charges that included robbery with violence and murder. Among the group that escaped were gunmen who had attacked Cabinet minister Soita Shitanda and Kimilili MP Eseli Simiyu.

October 2010: Thirteen inmates escaped from the Busia GK Prison, leading to the arrest of seven prison warders. Eleven of the escaped prisoners had been charged with robbery with violence while two had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

December 18, 2007: Seven death-row inmates escaped from Naivasha Maximum Prison. ODM claimed the convicts had been released by the government to assassinate a top opposition politician.

March 4, 2007: Five death row convicts escaped from Nakuru GK Prison. The prisoners grabbed a pistol from an officer as they were being searched for tools used to cut grilles before the convicts escaped. Two of the escapees were convicted for the murder of a Nakuru taxi operator and another was a notorious highway robber.

April 21, 2004: Twenty-eight violent robbery suspects escaped from Naivasha Maximum Security Prison. Parliament was told that laxity of prison warders and inadequate staff led to the escape. Five of the escapees were rearrested within a week.

September 27, 2002: Landry Sironga, a convict who was serving a four-year jail term for being a self-confessed member of Mungiki sect escaped from Kamiti Maximum Prison.

One of the largest, if not spectacular, prison breaks in the world took place on May 17, 2017 at Makala Prison, the main prison in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More than 3,000 inmates are said to have escaped from the institution following an attack to free Ne Muanda Nsemi, the leader of Bundu Dia Kongo political-religious sect. Mr Nsemi is a self-styled prophet seeking to revive the ancient Kongo kingdom.


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