Rising Mental Health Cases Forces Kenya To Rethink Ban On Prison Visits
NAIROBI, Kenya — Mary Nafula, 44, an inmate at Langata Women Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi, cannot wait to see her family again.
“The last time family and friends visited me was in February 2020 before Covid-19 struck,” Nafula told Zenger News.
“I have not seen my children for more than a year, and it is taking a toll on me.”
She was given a life sentence in 2013 for drug trafficking.
During a workshop of the Kenya Prisons Services, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Kenya Red Cross Society on June 10, 2021, the Chief Administrative Secretary in the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government, Winnie Waceke Guchu, said the government intends to resume prison visitations for inmates.
“The government understands what these inmates are going through,” she said. “We are asking them to be patient as we streamline the process of resuming the visits.”
According to the Kenya Mental Health Policy of 2015-2030, prison settings (overcrowding and poor hygiene) make prisoners more vulnerable to mental disorders.
“Covid-19 has pushed us into isolation. We feel like we are not part of this world. Most of us in this correctional facility are on anti-depressants,” Nafula told Zenger News.
The death of several inmates from other prisons around Kenya due to Covid-19 shook inmates and the staff team at Langata Women’s Prison.
“Our prisons are congested, making it easier for us to contract and spread the virus. We thank God that none of the inmates here succumbed to Covid-19, despite some of us being taken ill.”
At Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi, the script is the same but with different players.
Derrick Mungusi, 30, is serving a 14-year-jail term for robbery with violence, said he had been troubled mentally since the government suspended prison visits.
“Being an offender doesn’t mean I’m deprived of all my rights and privileges,” Mungusi, who is asthmatic, told Zenger News.
“My family visits kept me going, and they made my stay here seem shorter. However, when the visits were deferred, life has not been the same.”
Mungusi said the government’s plan to resume prison visits is long overdue. He said it would help those psychologically affected the most by being separated from their loved ones.
“Family is therapy to most of us in prisons. It’s been 16 months of trauma, but finally, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Guchu told Zenger News that the government is yet to announce when inmate visits will resume officially.
“Inmates are people like us,” she said.
“They need family around them, and that is why we are working on modalities to make this possible. Most of them have been affected mentally when we suspended the visits.”
The government will be strict with the visits because the country is still battling Covid-19.
“We are aware of the risks that might arise from the visits, and that is why we want to vaccinate all inmates first. We will also rely on the Ministry of Health to give us the precautions to be followed.”
When the Ministry of Health confirmed the first case of coronavirus disease in Kenya in March 2020, stiff measures, including a 30-day-suspension of inmate visits, were put in place.
However, the latter has been in place for more than a year.
Guchu said this was intentional because prisons are among the most vulnerable groups to contract Covid-19.
“This is the reason why the government has put up containment measures through collaborations to curb the spread of this pandemic in our correctional facilities.”
In conjunction with the Kenya Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Kenya Prison Services has put several measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Kenyan prisons.
The Commissioner-General of Prisons, Wycliffe Odiwuor Ogallo, said the Kenya Prisons Services has been relying on professional counselors to curb the rising mental concerns.
“I applaud the team of dedicated counselors, who have been there for these inmates during this difficult time,” he told Zenger News.
“They have handled the situation in our prisons quite well as we try to find out on how we will resume inmate visits.”
In preparation for the resumption of the visits, Kenya Prisons Services is targeting to vaccinate more than 50,000 inmates and over 48,000 prison officers, according to Ogallo.
“We understand the danger of allowing prisons’ visits now. However, once we vaccinate all our prison staff and inmates, we will allow their families to visit them under instructions,” he said.
Vaccination of prison staff, which started in March 2021, will determine when visitations will resume, he said.
However, this will also be determined by the availability of Covid-19 vaccines. In March 20201, Kenya received 1.12 million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses through the Covax facility and the government of India.
This was part of 3.56 million doses allocated to the country through the Covax facility, but it is unclear when it will receive the next batch.
(Edited by Kipchumba Some and Amrita Das. Map by Urvashi Makwana)