The Chains of Freedom

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Nairobi, Jun 06, 2005 (The Nation/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX)

Stepping out of the prison gates three months ago, her eyes squinting at the bright sunshine and the people walking about freely, she played out the family reunion scenes in her mind. But these were not to be.

Elizabeth Mwita had waited for this day for 16 months. Others, like John Njuguna Chege, for five years; John Mwangi (10); Catherine Kiarie (three); Isaya Onyango Achok (21) and Kisilu Mutua for the longest time of all – 36 years.

Inmates at the langata women prison are revising a past KCPE examination paper most inmates are learning subjects of their choice to help them advance their career.

But they found out soon enough that release did not necessarily mean freedom. They met hostility, rejection and disdain from their families and society. It is a cruel, free ‘jail’ out there for former convicts.

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Elizabeth had served a shortened version of a two-and- a- half-year jail term after being arrested by Kenya Bureau of Standards (KBS) officers and convicted of selling cosmetics with prohibited substances.

A former teacher at Kilimani Junior Academy, she says she did not know she was selling banned substances. “The cosmetics earned me money to supplement my salary. Then one day KBS officers arrested me and charged me in court. The trial proceeded quickly. Within no time, the judge sentenced me to a prison term with the option of a fine. I could raise only Sh80,000 of the Sh250,000 fine.”

This meant she would serve slightly over half the sentence. “My daughter was sitting for her examinations in Kampala, Uganda, where she was living with my husband. We had to keep what was happening to me a secret,” she says.

“Luckily, the girl passed well. She was ranked fifth in town. She came to know of my predicament later, but she coped well with it.”

If Elizabeth thought everything would run smoothly, she was mistaken. “Jail life is not easy. I was used to a good life where I had everything. I had a nice job and my family was comfortable.”

But once the sentence started, everything changed. She barely coped in prison. Her husband, a senior officer with the World Food Programme, was never there to console her.

“Every inmate is treated equally. We were all regarded as criminals, even if we were there by mistake,” she says.

She endured these conditions for 18 months. “I looked forward to the day I would be released to return to my family.”

When the day came, she suffered total rejection. There was no welcoming party. Her husband of more than 10 years filed for divorce. He said he could not live with someone who had been convicted of a criminal charge.

“I could not believe it. I had stood by him for years. He was the last person I expected to give me a cold shoulder, let alone file for divorce.”

At school, her former colleagues were uncomfortable with her. Without any words being uttered, it was clear that she would be better off staying away.

“There is so much stigma on jailbirds. Even close friends and relatives keep off,” she says.

All her efforts to get a job have been futile. Today, she conducts private tuition for students and also runs small businesses using skills learnt at Langata Women’s Prison. “I make shampoos, hair conditioners and juices for sale,” she says, adding that she is waiting for the verdict of the divorce case.

John Njuguna Chege

He served five years and came out with only Sh30 to transport him from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison to his home.

It was not enough. He walked from town to Dandora as the money was enough only to get him to town. “I was told that it was all I had from the prison’s earning scheme.”

He had been away for five years and his 10 children had no source of income. The younger ones had dropped out of school.

“Nobody would offer them employment as they were ‘children of a criminal’. My family was torn apart. They had nothing to live for from the day I was arrested in April 1998. I was released a few weeks ago.”

He adds: “Anywhere my sons went for a job, they were turned away when they said their father was serving a jail sentence in Kamiti.

“Our society is very unwelcoming to people who have been in jail. It views them with contempt and suspicion. That is why many return to crime.

“Even my close friends have run away from me. Some are waging a smear campaign to deny my children chances of getting gainful employment.

Chege says he was framed for a crime he never committed. He was accused by his employer of stealing car tyres. The case dragged on for four years – until 2000 when he was jailed. He was taken to Industrial Area Prison and later transferred to Kamiti.

“I was beaten, tortured and starved by prison warders and fellow inmates. Whoever says prisons are rehabilitation centres is lying. What happens there just hardens jailbirds. And when they face rejection by society on being released, many have no option but to turn to crime.”

At 50 years, Chege has lost hope of being employed. But he cannot even transact any business as nobody is willing to associate with him.

“At times we go without food. There is nowhere to beg since those who would have assisted us are the same ones shunning my family.”

However, Chege relishes freedom from Kamiti. “I would die if I went back there,” he says.

“What I saw is humbling. Sodomy and drug abuse are rife. You have to use money to get anything – including prison uniform.”

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Now, courtesy of Resources Oriented Development Project NGO, Chege has trained in making soaps and detergents. But he has no capital to get going.

Inmates assemble for drill. Life after prison is just as bad for many of them..

“I wish I could get a loan to start a business and train my children. Nobody seems ready to lend me even a shilling.”

Kisilu Mutua

He is believed to be Kenya’s longest serving prisoner. When he was released on July 4, 2001, he knew he would be facing an uncertain future.

He spent 36 years behind bars on accusation of murdering politician Pio Gama Pinto in 1965. Now 63, Kisilu knows nothing but prison life.

He lives a hopeless life four years after his release – with no family and no property.

His relatives lost hope of ever living with him again. His brothers subdivided the family land without considering him.

When he was freed, he found that he was not welcome at home. He was seen as an impostor and was forced to seek accommodation elsewhere.

A trained carpenter and tailor, he was offered accommodation by a local administrator, along with carpentry tools to set up a business.

But he is short of capital. People still look at him oddly, none offering a helping hand. They are perplexed by the man who spent half his life in prison over the death of one of Kenya’s foremost politicians.

When he was released, the Press, lawyers and human rights activists made a big story out of it. But the excitement died and Kisilu is a lonely figure in the remote village of Kyethivo, Machakos district.

by Odindo Ayieko

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