Despite claims to the contrary, Kenya prisons are not the worst in the world

Monday October 24 2011


Kenya’s prisons have been demonised and condemned for excessive congestion that violates basic human rights, but a look at other prison systems around the world tells a lot about our efforts in prison reform.

Kenya has 89 prisons and a prison population of 50,000. How does this compare with other African and Western countries and what are the policy implications?

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, South Africa tops African countries in the total prison population followed by Ethiopia, Egypt, Rwanda, Morocco, Algeria and Nigeria in that order with Kenya coming eighth.

In the Americas, the USA leads with a prison population of 2.3 million, while in Europe, Russia tops with 780,000 prisoners. In Asia, China leads with 1.7 million inmates. The lowest prison populations are reported in the Middle Eastern countries.

If you take into account the total national populations, Rwanda has the highest per capita prisoners in Africa followed by the Seychelles, South Africa, Tunisia, and Botswana. Kenya is in position 19 in Africa and position 122 worldwide.

In Kenya, there are 120 prisoners for every 100,000 of the population. Uganda has 92 and Tanzania 82. In the Americas, USA tops again with 743 inmates for every 100,000 of the population while in Europe, Russia leads with 550 inmates per 100,000 people.

But the ultimate comparison of imprisonment across countries is the number of prisoners compared to the country’s prison capacity or space available.

This occupancy rate reflects the extent of prison congestion. An occupancy rate of 100 per cent means there is no congestion but there is no room for additional inmates.

An occupancy rate below one 100 per cent means there is room for more prisoners and rates above 100 per cent means that prisons are congested accordingly.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, many African countries may not have so many people in prison, but they tend to have so few prisons that they get badly congested.

Kenya has an occupancy rate of 226 per cent and is ranked number 10 in prison congestion worldwide, beating only Benin, Sudan and Burundi in Africa. The USA has 110 per cent, the UK 112 per cent and the Netherlands 86 per cent.

Worldwide, USA has the highest number of people in prison and also the highest per capita prison population (proportion of prisoners compared to total national population) but there are adequate prisons in the US as compared to many other countries.

African countries also tend to have the highest percentage of pre-trial detainees among their prison populations. About 90 per cent of all inmates in Mali are pre-trial detainees, giving the country the first position worldwide.

Legislation creates offenders as well by providing the basis upon which a person is arrested. If an act was not declared unlawful, the person would not be arrested.

Thus, societies that have more legislation tend to see more arrests. In the US, for example, thousands of laws are created each month by the combined forces of Congress, General Assemblies of each of the 50 states, and the myriads of county and city councils. Violation of any of these laws makes one part of the statistics of the prison population.

Kenya does not send people to prison as much as do many other countries around the world. But the broader democratic space enjoyed in Kenya today will also bring unintended consequences — increase in prison population.

However, the creation of new laws is a natural process, which perhaps explains why the US has the most per capita inmates in the world.
Indeed in the US, a person can even be sentenced to 200 years, three life sentences, or three death sentences.

The goal is to ensure that if the offender appeals successfully to, say, one death sentence or even two, he will still be executed for the third. If a sentence of 200 years is commuted to half, the person will still die in prison.

We may not be heading in that direction any time soon, but undoubtedly, there are by far fewer prisons in the country than the need and the situation is compounded by the high backlog of cases.

To ease prison congestion and give prisons a closer semblance of rehabilitation centres, three things have to be done: one, process the backlog expeditiously so as to free innocent people in remand, two, expand the prison system by building more jails, and three, put in place a mechanism to sustain expansion of the prison system.

Dr Mbuba is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice, Indiana University-Purdue.