Behind Bars: Life locked up in Lang’ata Prison (Part 1)

langata prison1

First published in the October 2012 issue of Destination Magazine

 There are collectively held preconceived notions about prisons, and they’re not
 great. The very idea is enough to keep
 most people from committing crimes. But what is life really like for the women locked up in Lang’ata Prison?
  By Caitlin Nordahl

Liz has been behind the gates of Lang’ata Prison for seven years. And now, three days before she’s due to be released, she’s shyly basking in the attention of a ceremony in her honour.

Before she became a prisoner, Liz made a living as a mitumba saleswoman. Business was good and she was looking to expand. “That is when my nightmare began,” she proclaims loudly, looking up from the sheet with the English version of her prepared speech for the first time.

As she tells it, one day she was taking a cab to send a large package of clothes out of Nairobi. When she got in, nothing was out of the ordinary, but things took a terrible turn when the car was signalled to pull over at a police checkpoint. Instead, the driver sped past. In the ensuing chase, the taxi crashed into a ditch and left Liz dazed. The driver, on the other hand, jumped out of the car and ran, so that when police caught up, they only found her. Liz was arrested.

She spent three years in remand, before she was sentenced to an additional four years and two months in the prison. Now, she’s getting ready to go out into the world again.

But that’s not why the prison is holding a ceremony for her. While incarcerated, Liz became involved in the prison’s choir group, and found inspiration as well as faith. With tracks that were her own compositions, Liz created her own Christian music DVD, featuring herself and other inmates, and today they celebrate the launch.

As she prepares to leave she’s overwhelmed with emotion. Obviously grateful for the opportunities given to her while there, she is, of course, more grateful to be leaving.

Becoming an Inmate

Lang’ata Prison is a sprawling complex, with a remand centre and the women’s prison, which is a maximum security facility.

This means that it hosts women convicted of violent crimes, like murder, assault and robbery with a weapon, from all around the country.

Elizabeth is young, and has an open face and kind eyes. She smiles sweetly, and when asked why she’s there lets out a small, nervous chuckle. “I’m in prison because of manslaughter,” she says. What happened? In a high, girl-like voice she replies matter-of-factly, “I just had a fight with my husband. And then he died.”

Phylis, whose shy responses and hushed voice are belied by the open curiosity in her round face, is serving two years for assault.

Charity has clearly been there for a while. She’s not old, but she has an air of acceptance – not in a satisfied way, rather she seems resigned to her life there. A 12-year veteran of Lang’ata, she’s there for robbery with a weapon after she and her co-workers robbed their boss.

Phoebe is the newcomer. She’s charged with murder but she hasn’t been convicted yet, so she waits in remand. So far she’s been there for nine months.

Once a woman is arrested in Kenya, her court process begins. If she can’t pay bail, she waits in Lang’ata’s remand centre. The amount of time women spend in remand varies considerably. Some of them go straight to prison while others spend years, because different cases take different amounts of time. Typically a person charged with loitering or shoplifting will be processed quicker than the violent crimes, but, of course, it also depends on how complicated the case is.

The Waiting Game

The remand prison in Lang’ata is a place of limbo. It’s a large structure, with the cells organised around a courtyard. The cells themselves are small rooms, although not miniscule, with a bathroom and bunks in each – every prisoner has a bed.

They also have quite a bit of freedom in terms of how they spend their days, unless they are scheduled for court. Otherwise, they can stay in their cells, participate in some of the prison’s rehabilitation projects or prepare themselves for court, including washing their ‘outside’ clothes for their day in front of the judge. In remand, there are two different types of uniforms – the standard stripes for the lesser crimes and a plain blue for capital offenses.

All of the women agree that being there, not knowing what’s going to happen, is nerve wracking.

Phoebe is still waiting to find out what will happen to her. “At times it feels hopeless. You don’t really know what will happen, how long it’s going to take. Even if you know one day, one time you’re going to leave prison, you don’t really know [when].”

However, she seems to be preparing herself for the worst, explaining her ‘what-ifs’ with certainty. “I think when I get convicted it will be a bitter pill to swallow.”

Elizabeth could sympathise, as she knows what it’s like to stare down the barrel of a murder charge, which carries sentences
like 20 years and death. When she was first brought to remand, she was originally charged with murder. “I was stressed. I didn’t know if the case could fall to manslaughter, because when you’re charged with murder it’s a very big case.” But she was lucky, and her charge was commuted to manslaughter, with typical sentences of two, three or five years.

In terms of the waiting game in remand, however, Charity takes the cake. She spent three and a half years there, and actually didn’t think she’d be convicted. “I was expecting to be released after the hearing of my case, but unfortunately I was sentenced to [death]. But later I was pardoned and sentenced to life.”

Once convicted the women are sentenced. Time in remand can be taken off, but the judge can also decide to add it on top. Then they are transferred to the prison, processed and officially become inmates.

Prison Life

The actual prison is set up quite differently from remand. Large, one-storey stone buildings covered with red mud are evenly spaced throughout the complex, with walkways going through them. There are patches of grass around the buildings where it will grow, with patches of dirt where it won’t – creating a monotone colour scheme.

In addition to the wards (where the inmates sleep), there are offices for the prison administration, offices for various aid and religious organisations, the kitchen (which makes the food for all the sub-prisons in the Lang’ata complex), a bakery, classroom and counselling buildings, a combination courtyard and sports area, a small farm, a dispensary, a shop and an ‘industry’ room where the inmates make handcrafts.

In 2002, new policies opened the Kenyan prisons, making it much easier for outsiders to get in, whether they were visitors, aid groups or religious leaders looking to perform church services. Father Peter, a Swiss priest, was one of the first to take advantage of the new openness and started going to the Lang’ata Prison on Sundays for mass. While there, he saw some basic necessities the women were going without and started an organisation called Faraja to help them. Five years later, in 2007, the organisation had grown to the point that it was ready to tackle larger projects. The bakery in the women’s prison was one of
the first, but that’s now run by the prison. Faraja’s idea is that once a project is up and running, they can turn it over to the prison, which can use government funds to keep it going – that way they can keep moving on to the next idea. Other projects they’ve started include formal education, computer training, counselling and arts and crafts projects, which are lumped together in the industry category.

Charity, who’s been in Lang’ata for 12 years, says that things changed since the reforms. The projects that stand out to her the most are the counselling and the school, but she is very quick to mention that before, they never had shoes. Now they do.

A typical day for the inmates begins around 6:30am when they wake up. The cell doors are opened at 7am, and role call is at 8am. Then the inmates have their breakfast and go to their assigned tasks. They might be working in the kitchen, on the farm or on various projects. Elizabeth is enrolled in the prison’s school, and spends her mornings and early afternoons there. When she’s done, she does fellowship and prayer with the other inmates, studies a bit, then has dinner and goes to sleep, starting the process all over the next day.

“Behind Bars: Life locked up in Lang’ata Prison” continues tomorrow...

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Caitlin Nordahl.

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