African Prisons Project: Seeking Justice from Behind Bars
An interview with Winfred Kamene Mutisya, Prison Officer, Langata, Kenya.
When QCT Chief Executive, Nicola Brentnall, visited Kenya in October 2018, she spent time in Langata Womens Prison with prison staff and inmates who help to deliver justice through legal programmes enabled by the African Prisons Project. Winfred Kamene Mutisya is one such Prison Officer, empowered with legal knowledge, who is dedicating her life’s work to restoring hope and dignity to women who are serving unjust sentences in prison. In an interview with Nicola, Winny speaks of how she got started, some of the challenges she has faced along the way, and the advice that she would give to others who want to make a difference.
What was your motivation for joining the Kenya Prisons Service?
I was originally recruited as a prison officer. During my training I was advised that my placement would be in prisons, working with those who had been incarcerated. Initially, I had no motivation to become a prison officer, yet circumstance led me to this position. My drive and passion developed a little later, when I was posted at Langata Womens Prison; a maximum-security prison for female offenders.
Here, I was able to work directly with the inmates and listen to their stories. Through listening, I learned how some women were innocent, jailed simply because they were unable to represent themselves in court. I found this injustice disturbing, giving me an incentive to help these women find a purpose and change their lives for the better.
It’s been 12 years since I started working with women that society thinks deserve to be locked in for good. I must say that despite the normal challenges we face, I find it a wonderful experience working with these women. In very difficult circumstances, they work hard and do all they can to make the best of the situation.
Describe how the African Prisons Project (APP) approached you and how the project was started?
The APP had started its work in Kenya at Kamiti Prison in 2011. They trained staff members and prisoners to work alongside each other as trained paralegals, helping prisoners to access justice. There was a real buzz in the prison service about this work and I was delighted when I heard the programme would be coming to Langata Womens Prisons in 2015.
The APP approached me through the welfare office which is responsible for the rehabilitation programmes in the prisons. My desire to study law made me fill in the application forms. A number of my colleagues also applied, but I was successful! I was chosen to be trained as a paralegal and to take the law diploma course from the University of London. This law programme started in 2015, with only four of us taking the diploma. The paralegal programme began the following year, this time with nine people trained at a basic level. This was really exciting – a chance for me to study law and to help people.
We were nervous but excited to see what we could achieve. We knew that so many people were in prison at Langata who either were innocent or were serving sentences that did not accurately reflect what they had done. All of us wanted to do something about this – and we had seen the success of the paralegals at Kamiti prison. Finally – it was our turn!
What was it like leading something new from the start?
It is a challenging experience and exciting at the same time.
We have had very limited resources in the prison – no access to the internet or computers, for example, but we set our minds to the task. This had to work – it was our responsibility to do this because the success of such a project depended on us getting this right. All new projects are like this, they succeed or fail depending on how committed the instigators are in ensuring that the project works.
I believe that we achieved that because we only started as a small team and now, we’ve grown to over 20 people, all well equipped with legal knowledge.
Can you remember your first case?
Yes. When the six of us started, we worked as a team. Our first clients were two women who were accused of robbery with violence. This charge carried a life sentence. We discussed with them what had happened, and it became clear that, while they had been involved in a theft, violence played no part. The sentence for robbery was very different and securing this for them became our goal. Our team set about preparing their case for them to present at the court. They had to represent themselves as they could not afford any lawyers. They finally went to court, and it was accepted that they had not been violent - which was the truth. The sentence was commuted to four years for robbery as the prosecution could not prove beyond reasonable doubt the initial charge of robbery with violence. The women were happy to serve this new sentence as they knew they had done wrong and wanted to make amends. This success gave us huge confidence.
What do you enjoy about the work that you do?
I enjoy helping the inmates access justice and secure their freedom; giving hope to those who have lost hope. Most importantly, it’s about empowering people to stand on their own and giving them a purpose to want to live and become better change-makers. It is satisfying when you give someone a helping hand in their time of need.
It is a great joy when I see people going home and being able to appreciate the fact that you helped them access justice.
This gives me the resilience to keep helping despite the challenges that I face while doing my work.
What was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Work-life balance! Time was my biggest challenge – being able to balance between family, my studies and my job was not easy. However, over time I have managed to overcome all this by properly organising my programme. Knowing when to beat deadlines and appreciating the fact that for me to achieve my goal, time is of the essence it does not wait for someone.
What would you give someone starting out to lead a new project?
Be clear about what it is you want to achieve and ensure that the project is really needed. Talk to people around you, know and understand the specific needs of those you want to help because projects are supposed to fill in the gaps.
They should prepare a budget then look for source of capital depending on what end results they want from the project.
Lastly, they should decide on a time frame which determines the sustainability of the project.
What effect does the project have on those within the prison environment?
The project has proven indeed that prisoners have solutions to their problems; all they need is support and facilitation. The project has restored hope where inmates had lost hope of ever accessing justice and securing their freedom. It has restored dignity especially because inmates and staff sit together and share a class to learn the law and work on cases as equals. It has made them feel like human beings again.
Discipline has improved amongst inmates and the relationships with staff has greatly improved.
It has brought renewed purpose to those here, and many want to join the programme.
What are your future plans?
For now, I am focused on finishing my law degree from the University of London and helping as many prisoners as possible to access legal justice using the legal knowledge I have acquired. I believe that there is still a lot that needs to be done inside the prisons.
I recently attended a secondment programme in the United Kingdom which has given me renewed motivation. The secondment programme is run by Africa Prisons Project, which involves bringing senior officers from the Kenya prison service over to the UK to see how different the prison system is from the Kenyan system. The aim of the programme is to help improve the Kenyan prison system by borrowing best practices from the prison system in the UK.
I was privileged to be the only junior staff to have attended the programme among other senior officers and this has given me a wider perspective of how different our Kenyan system is from that in the UK; a first world country. I did learn a lot despite us being there for only a month. The programme previously ran for three months, so we were on a very tight schedule.
With the help of my boss, I plan to introduce some of the programmes I learnt whilst on the secondment programme.
Given the chance, I would like to do my masters and later become a practicing lawyer.
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