The disastrous road of private prisons

Kenya's prisons are in serious need of reform. Opening the door to private interests is not the solution.

Then-Kenyan Minister of Finance, Uhuru Kenyatta, with pop star Bob Geldof and Dominic Strauss-Kahn, then IMF Managing Director in 2010. Image credit Stephen Jaffe for IMF.

Last month Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed measures to restructure the Kenyan prison system. The move will merge the existing Kenyan Prison Farms Fund and Kenyan Prison Enterprise Fund into a single Kenyan Prison Enterprise Corporation. This company would expand its production to include not only agricultural products and the iconic car license plates but a number of other products in line with Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda: manufacturing, universal healthcare, affordable housing, and food security. While media accounts referred to this as “privatization,” the initiative did not directly involve any private concerns.

Nonetheless, the Kenyan prison system does face serious problems typical of countries that rely on solving social problems with police repression and incarceration rather than social welfare programs. Kenya’s reliance on imprisonment means the prisons now house nearly 50,000 people in facilities designed to hold 14,000. Moreover, a number of studies have uncovered horrific conditions such as lack of food and rampant presence of tuberculosis, scabies and diarrhea. A 2014 survey of 18 prisons found many cells without toilets and some without running water. In several instances overcrowding was so severe individuals could not even find a private space to meet with their attorney.

Claims of torture have also emerged, as evidenced by a 2017 suit brought by three men confined in Manyani prison. The men are litigating on behalf of themselves and 800 others incarcerated at Manyani, arguing that they were subjected to repeated beatings and starvation. Ironically, during the Kenyan War of Independence (often called the “Mau-Mau War”), Manyani was one of the sites that held alleged freedom fighters.

The truth is that for the most part Kenya is locking up people charged with petty offenses. While media may echo government assertions of a crime wave, a study released by Chief Justice David Maraga in 2017 alleged that 70 per cent of cases resulting in imprisonment involved offenses such as lack of business licenses and creating a public disturbance. Hence, the problem of overcrowding could be solved by simply finding alternative methods for addressing petty crimes, such as restorative justice or community service.

Instead, Kenyatta’s recent moves likely herald introducing private sector players into the equation. Dressed up in the rhetoric of national development, this restructuring looks much more like creating a vehicle to exploit cheap prison labor rather than address more substantive issues.

While the Kenyan prison system needs transformative change, turning to the private sector has a long global track record of failure. A more serious turn to the private sector, such as full privatization of prisons, by Kenya may deliver profits to corrections bureaucrats and companies involved in the global prison industry, but bring little relief to those locked up in places like Manyani.

In a country which Transparency International ranks as one of the most corrupt in Africa, the advent of the private prison profiteers could also likely bring kickbacks and backhanders to government officials who pave the way for private sector expansion. Private prisons are not the solution. They make money by locking up more people and keeping them locked up for longer periods of time. They have not worked in South AfricaAustralia, the US or the UK. There is no reason to expect they will offer a recipe for Kenyatta in Kenya.

The real answer lies in cutting back on incarceration and providing resources to fight back poverty and inequality-jobs, education, housing-not building more prisons or bringing in new leadership to manage a fatally flawed system. These unfortunately are not steps that Uhuru Kenyatta is likely to take any time soon.

About the Author

James Kilgore is an educator, author, and activist based in Urbana, Illinois and author of Understanding Mass Incarceration (2015). He spent six and a half years in US prisons, preceded by a six-week stint in South African jails.

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