Sunday, August 31, 2014

KENYA SHOULD RELEASE OLD, DYING PRISONERS FROM ITS CROWDED JAILS

Travelling through the Southern States of the United States this past week, I came across a tabloid publication called The Jail Report. In it were dozens of mug shots of suspects arrested over the previous two weeks and booked in jails on diverse charges - ranging from shop-lifting to drinking under the influence of alcohol, to battery, burglary and murder.

It was a photo gallery of first and repeat offenders of different nationalities and colour - Blacks, Whites, and Latinos; young and old
well-groomed and unkempt - many facing the grim prospects of long time in the country's already crowded prison system.

What drew my attention while perusing the inside of the pint-sized, privately-run publication was the editorial headlined: Crooks Don't Deserve an Extra Break Because They Got Old in Prison.

The write-up took me back to a television clip I saw in Kenya recently in which prisoners were asking President Uhuru Kenyatta to release old and invalid prisoners on humanitarian grounds. I had expected that after that story, a vibrant discussion would follow, but all was quiet. The usually blustering human rights advocates and criminologists just ignored it.

The question still remains: Should the Kenya government or any other government for that matter, release aged and sick prisoners on humanitarian grounds?

Let me put it another way: Are we spending tax-payers' money unnecessarily on people who are no longer a danger to society?

According to The Jail Report, crooks who commit serious crimes should rot in prison. Publisher Greg Rickabaugh says although it costs about twice as much in America to house a prisoner over 50 (years of age) as it does the average prisoner, "we will be shooting ourselves in the foot if we weaken an already weak justice system even further to save a buck."

I still believe prisoners can be rehabilitated through training; and if taken through a well-structured social system of support; thereafter they can be released safely to society.

However, I doubt Kenya even knows the number of prisoners aged over 65 years in its system. True, there have been prisoner releases in the past, but these were done on presidential orders and intended to de-congest the system; and not on account of age, mental or physical impairments of the detainees. The result is that Kenya still holds hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hopelessly sick and aged prisoners waiting to die behind bars.

A research done in America a few years ago by Jamie Fellner, author of Old Behind Bars: The Aging Population in the United States, found there were prisoners in America "who were dying and could not breathe; prisoners so old and frail they needed help getting up from their beds and into their wheel-chairs; prisoners who lacked the mental and physical ability to bathe or eat or go to the bathroom by themselves."

Yes, we too have similar people in our prisons in Kenya today.

My view is that we need a public debate on whether prisoners who have serious mental and physical problems; those too old to fend for themselves; and those who are bed-ridden; can be pardoned to go back to their villages and die in dignity. It should not be a matter of saving taxpayers' money but a decision based on common sense.

And that is my say.