That Kenyan prisons are grossly overpopulated is not news. That the government has grand policies to decongest them is also an old story. Every new Commissioner General of Prisons for the past two decades has come into office with the fire in the belly to turn our sorry prison facilities into a modern correctional system, with the decongestion being top of their to-do list.
Unfortunately, the prison bosses, for reasons that they are not entirely to blame, exit the position with the prisons very much in the same state they had found them. Statistics show that our correctional facilities currently hold 53,000 inmates against a capacity of 28,000. That means they hold more than twice the number they should do.
Kenyans would, therefore, be forgiven if they stifled a yawn when Commissioner General of Prisons Wycliffe Ogalo recently said the department is in the process of implementing policies aimed at decongesting the prisons.
The congestion problem stems from several factors, chief of which is that the development prison facilities has not corresponded with the growth of the population. Most of the facilities are relics of the colonial era and early years of independence.
While other units of the justice system have been growing apace with the population and other changes in society, the prison system appears stuck in the dark past. For instance, while the Judiciary has undergone a great deal of transformation in the past decade, not just in terms of infrastructure but also culture, the grand plans for the prisons are yet to take off.
Speaking of a transformed Judiciary, it has been one of the reform policies of the courts to apply custodial sentences sparingly, particularly in the case of petty offences.
This policy has, however, not been very successful. There are still too many people in prison, who should not be there, because of variety of reasons, including judges issuing fines and bail terms that are too stiff for most petty offenders. Others end up in jail because of lack of sound legal representation and ignorance.
As a new broom, we hope that Ogalo will succeed where his predecessors failed in sweeping the filthy correction system better. But to succeed, he will need help from other quarters including the Executive, Parliament the Judiciary and Treasury. Our prisons must be transformed into true correctional facilities, not the concentration camps that they currently are.