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Life as a female prison warder

NAIROBI, September 3 – Jennifer (name altered to conceal identity) has worked for the Kenya Prisons Service for eight years, rising to the rank of Corporal.

She has undergone advanced weapons training, combat and criminology. In addition to studying prison reform programmes, Jennifer is also qualified in leadership and disaster management skills.

In her own words, that is a commendable achievement for a woman.

“I am married with two children,” she continues. “I work with my husband at a men’s prison. He too is a corporal. When I first got promoted to serve alongside him, I thought it was a blessing. I’m not so sure anymore.”

Jennifer’s monthly gross salary is Sh15, 000, same as her husband’s.

“I lobbied hard to get that job. It wasn’t easy. I had once apprehended an escapee a month after a jail break. I got a letter of commendation. I knew I deserved the promotion but my superiors didn’t want to grant it to me. My uncle is a brigadier at the Ministry of Defence. I think that helped,” she says.

And that’s where her trauma begins.

“Inmates taunt me; they say I ‘bribed’ my way to Corporal and I know all too well what they mean.”

There are allegations that many women prison warders have slept their way up the rank: Jennifer claims that women are passed over in promotions for less experienced male counterparts.

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“Even the prisoners mock my husband. There have been a few fights,” she narrates.

But, she confesses, there are tempting moments: “Some of the inmates are really attractive, and they (inmates) know when you think they are cute. We exchange glances, sometimes smiles. But it can only go so far. You see I don’t have direct contact with them.”

She says some encounters with well-to-do inmates are particularly enticing.

“I’ve been promised the world; mansions, a new identity, travelling especially by drug-related convicts. And when you earn Sh15, 000, yes, you’ll consider it. But I’m married, with children,” says Jennifer.

Has she ever taken bribes, we asked?

“Yes. Not for anything major though, five hundred shillings to sneak in a packet of cigarettes for an inmate.”

She explains.

“One has got to be friendly to the inmates; a person is put under my charge for rehabilitation and reformation. You’ve got to help them be accepted back to society upon release.”

Despite the odds, Jennifer loves her job. She believes that prisons have a role to play in society and sees a bright future for her profession, but with better management.

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“I hate that the service is seen as a secondary force to other disciplined forces. Our officers are neglected. They don’t even have defined uniforms,” she protests.

The warder also faults the justice system. According to her, there are many people in prison who shouldn’t be there at all

“Somebody was found walking on the streets of Nairobi by City Council officers, apprehended and arraigned in court for the offence of hawking. My heart breaks. Once I paid a Sh500 fine for one of them.

But there are bad days when your gut tells you this man is a murderer. You know he should be on death row. But because of weak prosecution, you have no choice but to turn the key. He stares you (dead) in the eyes, and then he walks.

If I could change some things in my job, I would expand the prison mandate from merely safe custodial duties to playing a major role in national security.

I would harmonise the pay of my officers with those of the armed forces. The department would be placed under the Ministry of Internal Security and not Home Affairs. Training would be intensified; we’d have an internal intelligence unit,” she concludes, as her face lights up.

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