Why it’s uncool to beat prisoners

Saturday May 2 2009

How psychological and emotional barriers were

How psychological and emotional barriers were broken: Bantu Mwaura and Langata inmates in a scene from the movie Mlima Tutapanda ( ‘We shall climb the mountain’) by Ndungi Githuku  


Bantu Mwaura will be mourned at, among other places, the Langata women’s prison.

In 2005, Bantu and Ndungi Githuku and their team took advantage of the open door policy of the prisons to use drama therapy to get the prisoners and staff to live together.

The idea was that in addressing their pasts and presents, they would see in each other not just prisoners and prison officers but women whose only difference was the colour of the uniform they wore.

The drama therapy involved walking the prisoners through an examination and acceptance of the crimes that brought them to prison; a critical look at the shortcomings of the criminal justice system in Kenya; and a reflection on how they were received into prison — the beatings by the staff and the bullying by the other prisoners.

The dramatic acting out also involved an assessment of what the prison reforms and open-door policy meant for them and how best to safeguard the gains of the prison-reform programmes.

The prison officers in turn went through a similar process — they examined the reasons they joined the prisons as staff, how they were received and inducted into the prison — the bullying by the older staff and the indoctrination that a prisoner was subhuman and should be treated as such.

Once again, there was an assessment of the prison reforms and why the staff resented the open door policy and felt the prisoners were getting all the “attention” from the home affairs minister Moody Awori.

Bantu and Ndungi were a sight to behold — in a women’s prison that previously men could not enter were these dreadlocked men animatedly drawing out the institution’s dark secrets.

These were things no one had talked about before — all the hate, malice, injustice, the occasional flashes of a humanity, mercy, empathy.

Bantu crafted the stories into a script as Ndungi recorded the documentary with his multiple cameras.

When the actresses, who were, in the real sense, playing themselves, walked onto the stage and acted out their roles, the prison began to heal and emotion flowed.

Prisoners were able to walk up to officers and tell them, “You did not have to do that to me,” and officers told prisoners how difficult it was to show humanity when they themselves felt undignified in the shacks that they shared.

It was not all hugs and kisses all round, of course. Some of the staff were genuinely angry at the project and the painful processes involved.

Wanini Kireri was then officer in charge of Langata ( she is now in charge of the Shimo la Tewa maximum men’s prison).

Many prison officers warned her that she would not be able to handle what Bantu, Ndungi and team left behind in terms of the “living happily ever after” expectations of the staff and prisoners.

After all nothing had changed, no new staff houses had been put up nor had the sentences of the prisoners been shortened.

But it appeared the psychological and emotional barriers had been broken Langata became a role model for reform through co-ordinated prisoner and staff teamwork.

The prisoners and staff were to act out this script for many different audiences, including lots of people from civil society and faith based organizations — Maina Kiai then chair of the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights and Tirop then Commissioner of KNCHR, Rebecca Nabutola, Koigi Wamwere and of course Moody Awori. The then Commissioner Kamakil shed tears when he watched it — it was that real.

Just before Moody Awori left, KNCHR organised a meeting for all senior officers in the Prisons Department to assess the impact of the reforms from a human-rights perspective with a team from various human-rights bodies and Bantu.

Our evaluation was based on what impact the reforms had had from a knowledge, skills and attitude change perspective.

When Bantu rose to speak, he asked them to admit him as a prisoner and through this process addressed their biases towards prisoners based on their looks and poor backgrounds.

They told him they would treat him badly because of his dreadlocks, strange name, funny shirt and dusty sandals.

They were shocked when we told them he had a PhD… So he used his own example to explain how so much of what is needed in prison reform was about attitude change and that it cost nothing.

The last time I met Bantu at the National theatre I teased him, saying his “fans” at the prison were missing him and we talked about the possibility of creating more “fan bases,” particularly in the men’s prisons. We left it at that.

Wanini Kireri called me on Monday last week to tell me that Bantu had passed on and that she had asked the staff in Langata to break the news to the prisoners gently.

When I told her I was writing this piece, she said, “Tell them that Bantu gave us hope — he let us tell our story and he achieved so much change. He never made us feel that he was imposing his own ideas, he was so humble.

“As a result of the drama therapy, it became really ‘uncool’ for officers to beat prisoners or for prisoners to treat staff with disrespect. He made us realise how much we needed each other as staff and prisoners — how we completed each other. I personally will always be grateful to Bantu and his team for making all of us in Langata realise that we can be the change we want to see in the prison.”

Alice Nderitu, a director at Fahamu Networks for Social Justice, formerly worked with the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights and as a senior superintendent with the Kenya Prisons Department