Teresa Wanjiku Njoroge interview on her journey to helping prisoners after finishing her term at Lang’ata Prison [David Njaaga,Standard] Sitting in prison one year into her sentence, Elizabeth Adisa, 23, thought life as she knew it was over, at least for another three years.
That was her sentence for child neglect, having been in prison since July 9, 2019.
Then Adisa learnt she was among 4,000 prisoners to be released by the government to decongest prisons in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.
“I was so surprised I refused to believe it. There was another inmate with a name similar to mine so I thought she was the one getting out,” she said.
To her shock, on March 28, Adisa walked out of the prison gates, having served just a quarter of her sentence.
For Benedict Panyako, the pandemic has also come with a silver lining.
Panyako was jailed 30 years in August last year for robbery with violence. The incident happened in Migori County.
However in less than one year, his appeal against the jail sentence has been finalised and he is now a free man after Justice Antony Mrima last month quashed the sentence on grounds that he was not accorded a fair trial.
He is among thousands of prisoners released in the last three months as the Judiciary fast tracked their cases in efforts to decongest prisons in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Judiciary, more than 7,000 cases involving people being kept in custody have been finalised from the time the country recorded the first case of the novel coronavirus in March, with majority being set free.
Criminal lawyers agree that it is unusual circumstances where criminal appeals are heard and determined in less than one year, with many convicts walking to freedom. “Our experience is that it takes a minimum two years to determine a criminal appeal but most of them take between three to four years,” says lawyer John Swaka.
On March 19, the National Council on Administration of Justice chaired by Chief Justice David Maraga put all prisons, borstal institutions and remands on lockdown to contain spread of Covid-19 in the overcrowded facilities that host more than 54,000 inmates.
On April 2, the CJ announced that the Judiciary had released 4,800 prisoners serving sentences for petty offences to help curb the pandemic in prisons.
According to Justice Maraga, reviewing the 4,800 was done in two weeks by various High Court judges to reduce the number of inmates .
And to reduce face-to-face interaction with prisoners, the Judiciary adapted virtual hearings and delivery of judgments whers prisoners are no longer required in open courts.
Despite the efforts at concluding cases, prisons are facing a crisis of dealing with coronavirus after 31 inmates at the Industrial Area Remand Prison tested positive for the virus on May 28.
The World Health Organisation had warned countries that had recorded Covid-19 cases to take urgent measures of decongesting overcrowded detention facilities to avoid spreading the virus.
Despite being set free, beneficiaries of the decongestion are facing difficulty of reintergration into society.
Adisa was was fortunate to have attended a rehabilitation programme while in prison run by Clean Start, an organisation of formerly imprisoned women who work with those released from prison. They helped her get home to Kakamega County.
Teresa Njoroge knows only too well what Adisa has to go through trying to get her life back on track, hence starting ‘Clean Start’.
She too was arrested in 2011 for alleged bank fraud and jailed for one year. Eight months into her sentence, Njoroge was released for good behaviour, four months shy of completing her sentence.
“Stigmatisation is the biggest problem,” says Njoroge. “Lack of community is a problem and over time, you develop trauma from the rejection. Adjusting to the outside world is very difficult,” she says.