by Orem Ochiel
In the fifty years following Kenya’s independence, successive governments have managed to entrench what is both a continuation and a perfection of the colonial penal system: The varieties of colonial incarceration – labour camps, torture camps, detention centres, prisons – seem to have been maintained, essentially, as they were. We might also imagine contemporary slums as the urban manifestation of colonial-era Reserves. The overwhelming majority of prisoners have little education, are unemployed (or irregularly employed), and live in poverty. Slums and prisons—the former feeding the latter, the latter feeding the former—become the places and spaces in which the nation-state houses its poor.
In Kenya, as of 2005, female prisoners comprised 3.6% of the national prison population. In 2006 and 2007 female prisoners comprised 12% and from 2008-2011 female prisoners comprised between 10% and 9% of the Kenyan prison population. The average number of women prisoners from 2006 to 2011 was 10,578 while the average number of imprisoned men during the same period was 85,947. That, consistently, the largest numbers of women are imprisoned under the “Liquor Act”, and the “Employment Act” points to the fact that criminalisation in Kenya is almost entirely a war against the poor (the second largest category of “Various Cases” seems to be a catch-all and is difficult to analyse without additional data).
A confluence of factors makes the incarceration of women in Kenya an urgent feminist issue: the oppression of women within a patriarchal regime, the marginalisation of prisoners—”prisons disappear human beings”—within a carceral regime, the marginal number of women in prisons (which further diminishes their already much-diminished visibility), the historically brutal disposal of women in colonial detention facilities, and the recent and continuing usage of detention as a means of political repression and ethno-national oppression.
Furthermore, the mass incarceration of men (the obverse of the Kenyan pandemic of extrajudicial killing) places additional social and economic pressure on women, who have been systemically alienated from resources that might enable self-reliance, and who already live day-to-day with very little security. Women, who are often primary caregivers in a family, are left without means by which to support their households further entrenching the generalised impoverishment of the women left behind. This makes prison reform, prisoner release, and prison abolition important feminist issues in Kenya.
I had to bring up our family single-handedly and had to support my parents: In fact in our life together, I have supported him [my husband] with all his needs because most of the time Kathangu has been unemployed. Since he started his battles with the state, potential employers have blacklisted him. (Mrs. Rosana Kathangu in The Other Side of Prison)
It is from the point of view of the women left behind that “The Other Side of Prison: The Role of the Women Left Behind” (ABANTU for Development, 2004) documents the experiences of women who lived through the two and half decades (the 1980s and 1990s) of dictatorial rule under Daniel arap Moi. This period was characterised by the rigorous policing and total militarisation of public life. It also normalised political detention and extrajudicial killing in Kenya. The extent to which this normalisation occurred can be discerned from the name and location of two crucial sites of state violence and civilian resistance: “Nyayo House”, the Moi regime’s torture headquarters was located underground, in the heart of the central business district (and minutes away from the State House) of Nairobi, the national capital, while the multi-year protests to free political detainees was centred at what was baptised “Freedom Corner” in Uhuru Park (and later at the All Saints Cathedral), on the edge of the central business district of Nairobi. Thus, power relations in Kenya were describable within the realities and metaphors of the towering prison-house of the state and the marginal corner of burgeoning freedom.
The Other Side of Prison is a crucial historical document detailing the lived experiences of women under some of the darkest oppression Kenya has faced since independence. Each of the women in the book is a mother, grandmother, daughter, or sister of a man who was a political detainee of the Moi regime. Each of these women participated—even if at a remove—in some way, for some duration, in solidarity with the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group and the mothers who protested for “the unconditional release of our sons” at Freedom Corner. It is these women who endured years of activism and labour that was aimed at, and effective in, the recovery a generation of men that would otherwise have been lost.
“The Freedom Corner” by all accounts was a huge success. Mothers who participated were extremely proud of what they achieved. It led to their sons’ freedom. […] This demonstration by women aged between 50 and 80 years was a landmark in the struggle against injustice in Kenya. (13)
The eagerness with which these women spoke out is illustrative of the extent to which a political detention regime, one in which bodies are disappeared, is also a regime of silence. The end of that regime in 2002 created a gap through which long-silent voices were impelled to flow and be heard. The story of these women is nothing less than the story of survivors and of veterans of concerted national struggle.
In the book, it is noted that there is little to no documentation of that period (the 1980s and 1990s) in Kenya’s herstory and that there is a lack of systematic analysis of women’s coping strategies under repressive conditions. Crucially, of that long period in which democracy was tightly constrained and suffocated, there is a “need to document women’s participation in the democratic process in post-independent Kenya and to highlight and document women’s leadership roles in defending their rights and those of their children and spouses.” (10) Women’s participation is an aspect of Kenya’s democratic life which continuously goes through un-writing and erasure. Documenting women’s lives in this manner is thus not only a necessary means of securing the afterlife and re-circulating the energy of activism but is also an important act of resistance in a post-colonial, post-independence, post-dictatorial regime that is nonetheless built on the reproduction of disposable women and men.
During the Mau Mau war women played an important and crucial role yet their role was not recognised and has not been recorded in history. Sadly, during the 80s and 90s a large number of the women whose spouses, brothers and sons were arrested had no clue of why they were arrested so they were taken by surprise. (Wanjiru Kihoro)
Each of the stories in The Other Side Of Prison is a brief but incisive recounting of what each woman remembers to have happened, what she saw, what she did, and what she endured. Threads run through all the stories: suddenly finding out that one’s spouse or son has been taken, not knowing “whether he was dead or alive”, a lack of information as to where they were taken or precisely by whom, the need to collect funds in order to travel and locate the taken men, the terror of not knowing, the endless red-tape, stonewalling, and lack of official cooperation, the continuous police searches and harassment, fearfulness within one’s community, straitened economic circumstances as detention dramatically reduces the household income, worry about children’s mental health, schooling, and care, a determination to find and support the taken men.
When I heard that Paddy was arrested, I was stunned and very confused. I wanted to know where they had taken him. […] It was not easy […] I did not give up. (The late Marcella Ojuka)
Some of the beloved men have well-known family names, names that are inscribed into national lore. Others are less known while a few are anonymous. What this highlights is that women of all walks of life acted in solidarity against the government and the blanket of repression that treated the farmer, the fisherman, the community organiser, the student leader, and the lecturer, all alike, as “not a human being.” In a regime whereby political assassination was frighteningly common, the act of speaking against the government carried with it the possibility of fatality. That these women engaged with the government in peaceful protest must thus be seen as more than a re-investment in the nation-state or as an earnest, determinedly vociferous, appeal to power. The women at Freedom Corner were actively subverting the dominant order and re-imagining new expressions of direct democracy.
We showed how under the regime of Daniel arap Moi, the constitution had been changed frequently, leading to serious violations of human rights and strengthening of dictatorship in Kenya. (Wanjiru Kihoro)
In the Foreword to The Other Side of Prison, Prof. Wangari Maathai’s observes that, “[i]nterestingly no woman was detained or imprisoned although many were beaten up and locked in custody. Some went into exile.” In saying so, she is perhaps making the distinction between long term detention without trial or imprisonment (detention with trial) in one of the 99 prison institutions in Kenya, and detention in police cells as well as house arrests. Indeed, Rael Kitur and Veronicah Wambui Nduthu were held in police cells in 1982 for over a week until after their sons were arrested. Florence Nyaguthie Murage was arrested on August 7, 1990 (on suspicion of possession of seditious materials), interrogated, and tortured while pregnant at Nyayo House then held at the Langata Women’s prison for two weeks. While it is not clear exactly how many women were similarly maltreated, it is suggested that they were numerous.
This mode of political repression continues in Kenya, and was most recently exemplified by the killings at Mombasa’s Masjid Musa Mosque and the subsequent detention of seventy men and at least one child on suspicion of being linked to Al-Shabaab. In the coastal regions of Kenya, political detentions (under the rubric of the war against terror) have effects, described by a woman witness, that echo the lamentations of an embittered Elizabeth Orchadson Mazrui about the carceral Moi regime:
[T]he political detentions of the 80s destroyed whole families. They destroyed lives; a lot of families were destroyed and the wounds these detentions caused cannot be healed. In almost all the families that had somebody detained, there are broken marriages or traumatised children. […] This is particularly painful for the women who fought so hard for these people, fighting for themselves and their children. […] We felt that this government has destroyed many lives. What I know for sure is that this government has destroyed a lot of families.
The destruction of Muslim families and communities in Kenya finds a seemingly infinite source of renewal in the bodies of ethnic Somali and Ethiopian asylum seekers. While the Refugees Act assures us that “[i]f police stop a Somali national entering Kenya without a permit, they may only arrest and detain that person if he or she does not wish to claim asylum,” Kenyan police routinely ignore such requests for asylum and detain refugees for “illegal presence”. This presumption of illegality is extended to Kenyan Somalis and Ethiopians:
Throughout the ten weeks of abuses in Eastleigh, police arbitrarily detained at least one thousand people in homes, streets, vehicles, and police stations, including in inhuman and degrading conditions. Police also falsely charged well over one hundred people—and possibly many more—with public order offenses, with no evidence of any kind to substantiate the charges. […] Arbitrary detention was not limited to specific sweeps following the bomb or grenade attacks in Eastleigh. (HRW 2013)
Kenyan Somali and Ethiopian women have also been subject to mass imprisonment under false charges, with no consideration given to whether they are pregnant, have children, or are the sole caregivers in the household. The de facto encampment of refugees within the Daadab refugee camp places women without male relatives and minority women at particular risk of sexual violence (HRW 2010). The mass detention of Kenyan Somali men then clears the space for the mass abuse, rape, and extortion of ethnic Somali women by Kenyan Regular Police, Administration Police, and the General Service Unit. These situations are becoming re-enactments of the abuses that occurred during the Wagalla Massacre in 1984 where 3000 ethnic Somali men were detained and subsequently slaughtered at an airstrip in Wajir District. Describing that day, one survivor recounted that having stripped and detained all the men and keeping them under armed guard, the Kenya military proceeded to ensure that “every single woman was raped that day.” The Wagalla Massacre might thus be differently thought of as The Rape of Wagalla.
Having detained Kenyan Somalis in their homes between November 2012 and January 2013, “a day after the November 18 bus attack [Kenya] police entered apartment blocks throughout Eastleigh, particularly in Section 1 of the district near where the attack took place, and raped and beat women and girls in their apartments.”
Other GSU officers brought the other three women to the truck. Their dresses were ripped and they were totally silent. We didn’t have to say anything to each other because we all knew what had happened to all of us. […] Similarly, a 50-year-old Somali woman told Human Rights Watch that in December 2012, two AP and two GSU officers seriously assaulted her with batons—including after she had collapsed onto the ground—when she tried to prevent them from taking her 17-year-old daughter away on 4th Street. More than two months later she said she was still in significant pain and was unable to sleep properly, while her daughter had fled to the Dadaab refugee camps out of fear of further police violence. (HRW 2013)
We need more research into the use of police custody (short term detention) in relation to the corruption which allows the police to operate a system of rent-seeking incarceration: In the case of the Somali and Ethiopian refugees, putative cash “bail” averaging KES 5,280, was demanded of all detainees. Human rights defenders often report bail amounts of KES 30,000. All these amounts are criminally extortionate, are effectively bribes, and serve only to exacerbate imprisonment (when bribes cannot be paid) and more deeply entrench poverty (as the practice is widespread and targets the poorest citizens). This system of corruption is only possible because the overwhelming and devastating threat of incarceration exists and is made visible in the physical presence of the police force and of prison buildings.
Kenya retains the spirit and much of the letter of the English colonial penal system, a system that was designed to sustain and secure the imperial project through violent and sophisticated modes and architectures of punishment. As such, Kenya operates a system of criminalisation, incarceration, abuse, and extortion that is an immediate feature of a broader system of state violence against the marginalised. For Kenyan women imprisoned for three years or longer, it is the case that because women’s prisons are less overcrowded than men’s prisons, the condition of incarcerated women is considered to be (but is not) better and therefore not worthy of as much attention as that of the men (Vetten 2003). The lack of comprehensive research into the condition of incarcerated women in Kenya defines these women as precisely those who are truly left behind.
The colonial system which we retain, and which purported to reform and rehabilitate inmates, in reality makes impossible any kind of widespread or meaningful restorative and transformative justice. This is especially true when the most wealthy and powerful perpetrators of widespread violence are able to occupy the presidency of Kenya with absolute impunity. That incarceration has always been an undeclared war on the poor, as well as a tool of political repression, means that prison reform is unlikely to yield meaningful results in guaranteeing prisoner rights and dignity.
The main documents guiding prison reform in Africa—the 1996 Kampala Declaration, the 2002 Ouagadougou Declaration and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners—all “overlook the distinctive aspects of women’s incarceration, which include the marginal number of women in prison, women’s gender roles [and the reproduction of these oppressive roles through gendered prison training programmes] and their reproductive functions.” (ibid.) As such, it is likely that even if some meaningful prison reforms were to occur in Kenya, incarcerated women would still be subject to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”
Such treatment has been continuously repeated in the unjust arrest and imprisonment of women human rights defenders in Huruma and youth in the slums of Nairobi, Mombasa, and certainly throughout Kenya. In 2011, Ruth Mumbi reported,
The term dignity does not exist in prison. We were ordered to remove all of our clothes for body search and they don’t even care whether you are on your periods or not. It’s such an awful experience, as soon as you remove your clothes you are supposed to put your legs apart for the body search. I was humiliated but could not help it when I saw a woman old enough to be my grandmother removing clothes together with us. From that moment I would not be referred as Mumbi anymore I had a new identity my prison number was 306/11 and Vicky’s 306/12. […] I was taken to Langata not because I was a criminal but because I had stood my grounds for peoples and women’s right to health care. 
Again, in February 17, 2014:
Around 11 am today, members of the Highway Self Help group were having a meeting in Kiamaiko, in Mathare constituency. For reasons which are unclear, the police stormed the peaceful meeting, disrupting and dispersing the surprised members, arresting Sarah Ashina, George Luvala, Susan Mutindi, Alex Kamande, Francis Gachui and Steven Muturi.
The treasurer of Highway Self Help group, Ms. Sarah Ashina, a 34 year old mother of two who is eight months pregnant was, “senselessly assaulted” by the cops, an incident which left Ms. Ashina bleeding profusely. The police still insist on incarcerating her and have denied her access to urgent medical attention.
Sarah Ashina has been at the forefront of condemning arbitrary arrest of youths by the police in Kiamaiko.
Prison reifies and concentrates the powers of the state in creating and maintaining a legally justified injustice. What Ruth Mumbi describes is the enforced “ritual practice of mortification” which is the “legal fiction of civil death” that is always constitutive of the penitentiary system. (Smith 2008)
[S]he loses all signs of her identity. Her nourishment is minimal and coarse. She performs the possessed labour of the slave. In her costume, scene, and gestures, she enacts her living death. […] In order to understand the prison, we will have to see how living death was neither an accident nor an excess, but part of its design.
We remember Sophia Dolar, Pauline Wanjiru, and Ester Wairimu, women human rights activists:
They were reportedly arrested in March 2000 with eight other human rights activists, held for five days in Nakuru Prison, Rift Valley Province. Upon arrival the women were reportedly forced to strip naked in full view of other prisoners and jeering prison guards, and beaten with sticks during interrogation. They were allegedly held in a large overcrowded cell holding 39 women, many of whom were ill. When they refused to eat uncooked food, they were reportedly beaten with canes and forced to eat the food. No official investigation is said to have been carried out. The Kenyan Government failed to respond to the letter of the two [UN] Special Rapporteurs [on Violence Against Women].
We remember Eunice Wanjira Njira, 44-years-old, who in October 2013 was “convicted to a 15-month jail term” after being charged for “sending offensive text messages […] and claiming to have had an intimate extramarital affair with a former Member of Parliament.” We remember also, the numerous women who have been and continue to be imprisoned in the Langata, Kodiaga (Kisumu), Nyeri, Meru, Shimo la Tewa, Kakamega, Nakuru, Eldoret women’s prisons, and other prisons and police cells countrywide. We remember the large numbers of mothers and their children held in our prisons.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Female Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the ‘Bangkok Rules’) which recognised that the unique conditions that surround crime by women, their conviction for crimes, and their imprisonment. “The Bangkok Rules are also the first international instrument to address the needs of children in prison with their parent.” (PRI 2013) These rules also recognised that prison is often ineffective in its stated goals of rehabilitating women offenders and protecting society from such offenders. It made specific provisions for women’s hygiene, menstruation, reproductive health and history, and childbirth. It emphasised and detailed the preservation of women offenders’ dignity and their protection from violence. These rules also documented all the levels of state, government, and civil society that are impacted by and required to act in order to successfully implement them. “The Bangkok Rules supplement the existing UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the Tokyo Rules on alternatives to imprisonment.” (ibid.) It remains to be seen to what extent the Bangkok Rules will be implemented in Kenya.
In 2011, the Kenya government began talks with G4S with a view to privatising prison services and building new prison infrastructure. The handing over of prisoners to private enterprise is always a recipe for the intensified enslavement of human beings in the name of profit. The movement towards privatised correctional services portends a proliferation of new and concealed modes of dehumanisation.
Kenyan feminism, in order to retain its impetus to end the oppression of all Kenyan women thus has to concern itself with the abolition of prisons which perpetuate a regime of deepening precarity and human disposability that is “punitive, criminal and legal focused.” Within a hetero-patriarchal regime, a penal justice system will always apportion its punishments unevenly, skewing its violence towards and against women.
Alternative interventions are necessary to ensure the safety and health of our communities not only because there is no clear evidence that prisons improve community safety, or because prisons are a recent import into Africa but because, importantly, “prisons are constitutive of violence in and of themselves and therefore are not viable anti-violence tools.” (Kaba 2013) These interventions must in turn lead to a dismantling of the police-state which is coextensive with the prison-state.
Because the core of the problem, poverty, is unlikely to be solved within a capitalist neoliberal context that requires and produces the militarisation and marketisation of all life and a maintenance (and expansion) of the wealth gap, it is urgently necessary that we turn towards systems of reparative and transformative justice, and of community accountability. These might draw from African pre-colonial systems of justice which were not built around detention or focused on punishment. In such systems, “perpetrators of violent acts must understand the impact of the harms they cause. [A] context [outside of the courts, jails, and prisons] within which we encourage perpetrators to assume actual responsibility for harm [and] provide them an opportunity to be transformed if they will accept it.” (ibid.)
Perhaps then, we can ensure that women, who are already the victims of the most egregious violence a patriarchal society has invented—and many of whom resort to violence as a result of themselves being exposed to sustained domestic violence (Mc Evoy 2012)—are not forced to face compounded violence and disappearance through incarceration. Perhaps then, “we are able to be compassionate to both survivors and perpetrators of harm,” and in doing so, create a Kenya in which violence and criminalisation of the most marginalised among us is a distant memory.
Orem is a lapsed mathematician and perspiring writer from Kenya.
 Lisa Vetten, “The imprisonment of women in Africa” (2003), in Human Rights in African Prisons edited by Jeremy Sarkin, HSRC Press, 2008.
 Kenya Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Abstract 2012”
 Angela Y. Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”, 1998.
 Caroline Elkins, “Chapter 7: The Hard core,” in Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, 2005.
Without fail Fridays at Athi River meant screening, and the women hardly escaped the usual tactics of the government’s interrogators. They were beaten, whipped, and sexually violated with bottles, hot eggs, and other foreign objects, all in an effort to force them to talk. Alsatian shepherd dogs were also brought into the screening huts, where they would growl at and eventually maul those women who refused to cooperate. Compound 1 sent numerous letters to the governor, who, on occasion, responded personally by inspecting the camp. According to Shifra, Baring would “sometimes come and see us being screened. Other times we would be ordered to squat, and he would come around looking at us. He never asked us anything; he would just walk around glancing at us like we were animals.” […] For most of the Emergency, women were detained primarily at Kamiti Camp. Kamiti had previously been a maximum security prison for criminals, but the circumstances of the war forced its transformation into a multipurpose facility. It was an overflow site for Embakasi prison and held several thousand men convicted of Mau Mau–related crimes. Behind its walls and barbed wire was also one of the largest known burial sites for Mau Mau adherents killed in the forests, on the reserves, and in detention camps, as well as those executed under Emergency Regulations. In the spring of 1954 the colonial government decided to open the gates of Kamiti to accommodate a surge of female Mau Mau convicts and detainees. Once fully operational, Kamiti would be unique in that it functioned as a self-contained Pipeline. In it women of all classifications—from the blackest of “black” to “white,” and various shades of “grey” in between—were detained and moved to different compounds based on their level of cooperation. Female Mau Mau convicts were fully integrated with the detainees, living in the same compounds and laboring together. At the end of their sentences they too became detainees, little altering their lives.
 “Unlawful Arrest and Detention of Asylum Seekers and Abusive and Inhumane Conditions of Detention”, in “Welcome to Kenya”: Police Abuse of Somali Refugees, Human Rights Watch, 2010.
 “Torture, Rape, Beatings, and Extortion by the Kenyan Police,” in “You Are All Terrorists”: Kenyan Police Abuse of Refugees in Nairobi/, Human Rights Watch, 2013.
Interviewees described 48 incidents involving GSU officers who extorted a total of Ksh 335,000 ($4,036), or an average of just over Ksh 6,979 ($84) per incident. Twenty-five incidents described involved RP officers who extorted a total of Ksh 286,900, or an average of Ksh 11,476. In seven incidents AP officers extorted a total of Ksh 38,500, an average of Ksh 5,500.
 Ruth Mumbi, “Kenya: Arrest of women human rights defenders in Huruma,” Pambazuka 521 (2011-03-17).
 Caleb Smith, “Detention without subjects: Prisons and the poetics of living death”, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 50, No. 3, Fall 2008.
The prisoner becomes a divided figure: a redeemable soul, but also an offending body; a citizen-in-training, but also an exile from civil society; a resurrected life, but also an animate corpse.
 Violence Against Women in Kenya: Report prepared for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), 2003.
 The United Nations Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners: Short guide, Prison Reform International, 2013.
-  A considerable proportion of women offenders are in prison as a direct or indirect result of multiple layers of discrimination and deprivation.
-  Women mainly commit petty crimes closely linked to poverty, such as theft, fraud and minor drug related offences.
-  Only a small minority of women are convicted of violent offences, and a large majority of them have been victims of violence themselves.
 Mariame Kaba, “Cognitive Dissonance: Ending Rape Culture By Sentencing People to Judicial Rape”, US Prison Culture, 2013.
 Claire Mc Evoy, “No Justice”, in Battering, Rape, and Lethal Violence: A Baseline of Information on Physical Threats against Women in Nairobi, Small Arms Survey, 2012.
Data from the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (Nairobi Women’s Hospital) shows that very few of its clients obtain formal justice [for Gender Based Violence]. In 2010–11 medical hospital staff acted as witnesses in 178 separate cases, or six per cent of the cases reported during that period (GVRC, 2012, p. 31). That figure was just 75 in 2009–10 and 153 in 2008–09, or 3.0 and 5.4 per cent of the total number of cases, respectively (GVRC, 2010a, p. 20; 2011a, p. 19). There is no available data on the number of convictions in these cases.
 Jeremy Sarkin, “Prisons in Africa: An evaluation from a human rights perspective”.
Incarceration as punishment was unknown to Africa when the first Europeans arrived. While pretrial detention was common, wrongdoing was rectified by restitution rather than punishment. Local justice systems were victim- rather than perpetrator-centered with the end goal being compensation instead of incarceration. Even in centralized states that did establish prisons, the goal of incarceration remained to secure compensation for victims rather than to punish offenders. 3 Imprisonment and capital punishment were viewed as last resorts within African justice systems, to be used only when perpetrators such as repeat offenders and witches posed discreet risks to local communities. […] As the history of the African prison makes clear, incarceration was brought to the continent from Europe as a means by which to subjugate and punish those who resisted colonial authority. The employment of corporal and capital punishment to stifle political oppression was the central aim of Africa’s first prisons. In light of this genesis then, it is hardly a surprise that present-day African prisons fail to meet their stated goals of rehabilitation and indeed persist in fulfilling the aims and committing the abuses set in motion centuries ago.