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Cold ugali and seven beans! Why you need cash to survive prison

Sunday July 12 2015

Inmates at Kibos Main Prison in Kisumu carry food from their prison's Kitchen on January 26, 2015. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI

Inmates at Kibos Main Prison in Kisumu carry food from their prison's Kitchen on January 26, 2015. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI 

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“Bang! Bang! Bang!”

The loud ugly sound of someone banging the metallic doors of the underground cells at Milimani Law Courts interrupted our animated discussion of Kenya’s (in)justice system.

It is quarter past five in the evening on a Friday. The dreaded time has finally come for those who cannot immediately raise bail after their day in court. We are about to be bused from the law courts to the remand prison.

Earlier that day, I had appeared before a lady magistrate. “Guilty or not guilty?” asked the court clerk, after reading the charges against me. “Not guilty,” I answered.

“You are released on a cash bail of Sh1 million or a surety of Sh2 million. The case will be heard on August 11. Mention on June 14. Next!”

“The State versus Geoffrey M.” As the clerk moved to the next case, a police officer approached and gestured to me to resume my seat.


He then handcuffed and frog marched me to the underground cells to wait for the trip to Inda (as the Nairobi Area Remand and Allocation Prison is commonly known). There was no way I was going to raise Sh1 million within hours so I had resigned to the fate that I would while some time at the infamous Inda.


After the banging of doors, five mean-looking prison warders ordered everyone out of their underground cells.

“Wauaji piga foleni hapa. Watu wa mabavu hapa. Na watu wa obtaining hapa (Murder suspects to queue here, robbery with violence suspects on a different queue and those charged with petty offences such as obtaining money by pretences here),” a warder thundered.

He then counted each one of us, and handcuffed the murder and robbery suspects. The low risk petty offenders were not handcuffed as the rest of us one hundred or so inmates were corralled out of Milimani Law Courts, into an already-filled bus.

The bus (popularly known as Moody Awori Hopper after the man who introduced the means of transport when he served as Vice President and Minister for Home Affairs) is also ferrying other prisoners from Kibera courts in the city.

In the underground cells, I had met and instantly made friends with this tall, talkative chap who appeared to know his way around. Everyone called him “chairman”.

During the lunch hour, he had sent the warders to buy him chicken and chips while others took the prison ration of sugarless biscuits and canned beans.

He had assured me that with small amounts of money, he would help me stay in Inda with a modicum of comfort.

He held my hands and ushered me to the front of the queue as we were frog marched into the bus.

After much jostling and shoving, all the 200 or so prisoners, plus a dozen prison warders somehow fit into the bus. My maiden journey to Inda finally begins.

After about 20 minutes of gangland driving, mostly on the wrong side of the road, the bus screeches to a halt at the gates of Inda prison.

“Haya. Watu wa Kibera wasishuke! Watu wa Milimani washuke mbili mbili, (Those from Kibera courts to remain on the bus. Those from Milimani, come out in twos),” the order came.

In twos we filed out of the bus, through a huge green gate into the reception area of the prison.

As orders, shouts and screams fly in the air, I happen to miss a step and stumble, almost going on my knees. A lash on my back swiftly follows.


“Welcome to Nairobi Area Remand and Allocation Prison. Built in 1911” the signboard reads.

Like a pack of hungry dogs, a bunch of prison warders welcome us with lashes, kicks and orders.

“Kabeni tano tano (squat in rows of five),” the next order came.

All of us scared souls follow the orders religiously. After four or five rounds of roll call, we are ordered to remove our belts and pass through a metal detector. Then through another gigantic green gate. We find ourselves in an enclosure roughly 10-by-10 metres. Another gang of warders is apparently lying in wait for us.

 “Remove your shoes and your belt,” they all shout in unison. “Kujeni moja moja sasa (come one by one now)”.

One-by-one, we are taken through a dehumanising search where a prison warder touches all your body parts, looking for contraband.

No money, cigarette or drugs are found on me. I had been advised to give my SIM card to the experienced remandee I met in court so I pass the search. Apparently old timers are not given as thorough a search as new recruits.

Finally, I am within the prisoners’ quarters. I am now officially a guest of the State. I put back on my shoes and belt and move for about 20 metres. We encounter another bunch of prison warders.

“Newcomers this side,” a menacing warder shouts. “Take your food and move there.”

All newcomers spend their first night in the dreaded Cell B2. A cell built in 1911 by the colonialists. I pick a metal container with some cold ugali, seven and a half beans and some coloured water that passes for soup. I try to eat but can’t. I donate it to another prisoner.

After whispering something to the prison guard, my guide (Chairman) miraculously manages to separate me from the other newcomers, who are being shoved into the full-to-capacity Block B2.

After three or four other checkpoints and 11 gates later, we finally make it into the L Block, where the white collar offenders are housed.

Block L is a two-storey godown-like building with 12 cells. It houses about 700 inmates.


Next to it is the notorious Block K where about 1,200 hardcore robbery with violence suspects call home. The third is Block J which is reserved for the ruffians and wannabe gangsters from tough neighbourhoods.

Those from Kibera Law Courts have their own cells in what is known as Jela Ndogo, which is actually a prison within the prison.

We find residents of Cell 6 of Block L deep in a prayer session when we enter. I am told to remove my shoes. Apparently it is illegal and unhygienic to wear shoes within the cells. I notice there are about 100 people in the cell.

I notice that about a quarter of the inmates are Chinese. The floor is fairly clean. The three-inch mattresses with blue covers are neatly arranged in the entire room. This is where the affluent suspects live, I’m told. All the bank fraudsters and corruption suspects have made it their home.

An inmate unfolding cloths outside their prison
An inmate unfolding cloths outside their prison cells at on January 26, 2015. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI

Soon the prayer session is over. I am summoned to a guy twiddling with a smartphone at the corner. Unlike others, I notice he is lying on three mattresses. He is the Kinara (prefect). After the niceties, he gets down to business.

“State house is Sh7,000. The Periphery (on the wall) is Sh3,500. If you have nothing, you go to Pipeline”.

State house is for the high and mighty.

For a one-off payment of Sh7,000, you have your two new mattresses and two blankets, and the service of a houseboy who cleans your utensils and clothes.

For the middle class in the periphery, you get a single mattress and a blanket.

The less-fortunate, who cannot pay anything, are allocated sleeping space in the Pipeline (the zone in the middle of the cell), you get tattered mattresses and blankets, which you share two or three people. The Pipeline residents are not allowed to come to State House, unless invited. Because the prison ration is only for the poor, I am told I must cough up if I want to eat well during my stay there.  

Sh200 gets me a week’s supply of uji. 

A specially prepared supply of hot vegetable, beans or githeri sets you back Sh500 a week. 

For those who love their meat, be prepared to pay Sh300 for a mururu (container) of meat.


An inmate unfolding cloths outside their prison
An inmate unfolding cloths outside their prison cells at on January 26, 2015. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI

The prices were lower, I’m told, until the Chinese were imprisoned there. All the potatoes are sold to them, instead of being served to all the inmates. The Chinese pay Sh500 for meat and they order direct from the kitchen, so you will be lucky to get a taste of meat even if you have the Sh300.

Getting stuff from the canteen is a daunting task. While a loaf of bread goes for Sh50, the Chinese visitors buy all the stock at Sh80 a loaf.

I take back my SIM card from my guide and promptly send Sh6,000 to the Kinara to allow me spend time in State House. No currency notes are allowed here. It is a cashless society. Every transaction, even the Sh50 for a stick of Rooster cigarette or bhang is paid through MPesa.

It is about 5am when we are woken up for morning prayers. Soon after, two warders storm in to carry out the first roll call of the day.

Later I learn that the prisoners are counted at least five times a day.

After the roll call comes breakfast. All prisoners are supposed to queue outside their cells for the bowl of sugarless, smoky uji but because I paid, my mururu of uji is served on my bed (sorry, mattress).

My second day as a prisoner just began.

As I make my way to the toilets after breakfast, hell breaks loose.

A gang of warders storm into our cell for tero (search for illegal items). Everyone is searched as we file out of the cell.

They are interested in mobile phones which attract a bribe of Sh1,000 if you are caught with one.

This day they are lucky.

Apart from two phones, they also happen upon some powder (reportedly cocaine) from one Chinese man. They arrest the unlucky Chinese.

After some haggling, some Sh80,000 is sent through M-Pesa to the warder’s phone and the Chinese is a free man, free of the charges of possessing contraband in prison. I also learn that it costs you one cigarette to get water for bathing. A gramme of cocaine goes for Sh2,000 while a packet of cigarette is Sh500. A haircut is Sh50 and to be taken to hospital is Sh500.

The daily routine inside the prison can be daunting. After breakfast, those going to court leave the cells while others are locked back into wait for lunch, which is served between 10am and 11am. After lunch, we are locked up again until supper time which starts at 2pm. By 4pm everyone has had their dinner.

The last roll call is normally at 5pm after which prisoners are locked up until the following day.

After the lockup, prisoners – those who have managed to sneak in stuff or bribed warders to bring it in – can use their mobile phones, smoke bhang and cigarettes or even snort cocaine without being caught. No warder has access to the cells after lockup.  

Such was my life for a few months, until I managed to raise my bail and returned to freedom.



Wardens trade with prisoners to make ends meet 

Contrary to public opinion, the relationship between criminals and law enforcement agencies immediately changes from patronising to friendly once they are handed over by the courts to the prisons.In a penal system that has undergone little change since the colonial times, one of the first lessons that a new inmate must learn quickly is to get into good books with prison warders if they want their stay to be humane.

Prison warders are poorly paid, pushing them to resort to running an informal prison enterprise that includes smuggling of contraband, drugs and hawking of necessities and amenities. 

To them a new load of prisoners is an avenue to make money and to the prisoners having a warden who is your friend comes in handy when you want better services.

“For a commission of Sh200 for example, an inmate can have Sh800 smuggled for him to his cell in Kamiti,” said a prison warder who requested not to be named. 

“It is even worse in remand prisons as remandees are not accorded full recognition as prisoners by the government.  Their cells are more crowded and their food rations are smaller but it all depends on the money you have,” said the warden.

With wardens only earning Sh17,000 monthly, to survive they are forced to engage in corrupt practices. In some cases others aid prisoners to escape like it is suspected in the recent Kamiti Prison escape.


“Our living conditions and that of the inmates we are supposed to rehabilitate are almost similar only that we are free to go home at the end of the day,” said the warder.

The officer said the rot in the institutions cuts across to senior management who make decisions on the cells that prisoners are housed.

“Going to your work stations with phones was abolished to prevent wardens sneaking in the devices to inmates but they still get them through seniors who are not subjected to checks,” said the warden.

According to the Prisons Act, “Any warden who knowingly lends or gives to any prisoner any intoxicating liquor, tobacco, bhang or hemp, drug, opiate, money, clothing, provisions, letter, document or other article is liable to four years imprisonment.”

In May 24, an activist who refers to himself as Modern Kenya Corps on Twitter published photos showing conditions inside a cell he had been locked in at Ruiru Police station, sparking  online outrage.

According to French Television station, France 24, fellow activists negotiated with the authorities for him to get his phone.

In February last year, wardens at Kamiti confiscated 476 phones from prisoners during a search that turned violent after an outcry from the public on cases of being defrauded by prisoners on death row.

There are at least 108 prison institutions in the country classified as Maximum, Medium and Youth Corrective Centres, a slight increase from the 89 inherited from the British at independence compared to the rise in inmates over the same period.

The quality of services too has nose dived as the government is unable to cater for this huge increase of inmates and experts say this is the cause of corruption in the jails.

“The rise in crime, the rate of conviction and length of sentences have proportionally risen, and so the prison population is always quite high, this pushes up the cost of prisoners maintenance beyond what the economy can support, leading to corruption,” said Odera Oruka a criminology and security studies lecturer at Egerton  University.


Vincent Achuka