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Last Updated: Monday, 28 June, 2004, 04:45 GMT 05:45 UK
Kenya's prisoners go hi-tech
By Gray Phombeah
BBC, Naivasha

Peter Wagato is no ordinary inmate. Inside the prison walls that stand under the shadow of a maze of chain-link fences, razor wire and guard towers, the 38-year-old is happy to shows off his computer skills.

Peter Wagato
Inmates of other prisons envy Peter Wagato's access to computers
"I can format my text, I can add pictures and graphics... I can even create 3-D images like the ones I am doing right now," says Wagato.

"I hope to use these skills when I get out and start afresh."

He is among a growing number of inmates at the Naivasha maximum security prison, 80km west of the capital, Nairobi, who are learning to use computers.

The sound of computer keyboards emerging from this prison hosting about 8,000 is seen here as a metaphor for a quiet revolution taking place in Kenya's prisons.

Torture claims

Until recently, little was known about what went on behind prison walls in Kenya.

For many years, concerns had been raised over the inhuman conditions in Kenyan jails.

Prisoners... now get sugar in their porridge, and we now serve them rice twice a week
Benjamin Njoga
Assistant Prison Commissioner
Claims of torture, brutality and overcrowding were frequent.

But since coming to power 16 months ago, the Narc government has promised to review the prison system and improve the living conditions of more than 50,000 prisoners in the country.

The man leading the computer-driven reform at the Naivasha prison is Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Benjamin Njoga.

"When they came here they didn't know anything about computers," says Mr Njoga.

"But now, before their jail terms end, they will have become computer literate."

Macho prison

Some 28 inmates have joined the computer class. Among them they share six computers donated by well-wishers.

They are due to sit for a basic computer examination in November.

As the inmates leap-frog into the computer age, life in the Naivasha prison appears less imprisoned by a history of degradation and inhumanity so common in Kenyan prisons.

Prisoners sleeping
Kenya's prisons used to be notorious for their poor conditions
But there is still the same stench in the Naivasha prison as in all the other prisons in Kenya: rotting food, urine, excrement, prisoners' sweat.

The macho world of the male prison still exists here.

However, Mr Njoga says life in the Naivasha prison is gradually moving away from the cruel, inhuman or degrading routine that characterises the prison system in the country.

"These improvements have made the lives of inmates here quite bearable," he says.

"As you can see, prisoners now wear trousers. They now get sugar in their porridge, and we now serve them rice twice a week.

"In every accommodation block, there is a TV set - although they can watch only one channel, that of the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation or Channel One."

Football has fast become the popular sport among inmates here, with its own prison league and one inmate providing live soccer commentary to his fellow inmates.

Holy lives

Computers are not the only new inmates at the Naivasha prison. God is also doing time here - and his vicar on death-row is Mark Kimari.

"I am the high priest here, preaching the Bible. I tell them to lead holy lives," he says.

Back at the computer class, Peter Wagato remembers the first time he set his eyes on a computer.

"I really didn't know what it was. I thought it was just another machine.

"Now I can say I am a computer literate. I can do word processing, Excel, I can create a database.

"I have really acquired a lot of knowledge here," he says.

Of course, the reality of life in other Kenyan prisons is not quite so hi-tech yet.

But for these inmates, putting computers behind bars is still seen as a big step towards improving the lives and living conditions of Kenyan prisoners.


SEE ALSO:
Inside Kenya's 'worst' prison
04 Mar 03 |  Africa
Kenyan prisoners 'to have sex'
26 Feb 03 |  Africa
Kenya frees death row inmates
25 Feb 03 |  Africa
Country profile: Kenya
05 Mar 03 |  Country profiles


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