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Feature: Harsh prison life for Kenya's disabled people

by Robert Manyara

NAIVASHA, Kenya, Dec. 2 (Xinhua) -- The high intimidating walls marked with manned towers rise to the sky completely, blocking the ongoing activities in the vast compound.

The dark and equally high gate do not make things any better as hawk-eyed warders armed with guns scrutinize any visitors touring the Naivasha G.K Prison, about 90 km northwest of Nairobi.

The high gates and intimidating warders do not, however, mask the shouts and sounds from the over 3,000 inmates safely locked behind walls.

Inside the penal institution, dubbed as the largest in East and Central Africa, it's a beehive of activity as inmates and warders move in all directions.

In one corner of the vast institution, bare-inmates are busy chasing a worn-out ball as their colleagues egg them on in a football competition pitting two blocks.

In a nearby field, a game of volleyball is at its peak with those involved and the spectators having fun, while meters away, a 'barber' works tirelessly on his customers.

In the industries, scores of the inmates engage in carpentry, metal work and other manual work as part of their rehabilitation.

Despite all this, one group sticks out like a sore thumb as its seats in an open ground, discussing various issues ranging from politics to life in prison. These are the disabled inmates at the prison.

With the highest number of inmates in the country, majority on life sentence, the group of disabled prisoners cannot be missed. Their disabilities range from blindness to missing arms, and their stories is that of pain, challenges and segregation.

Here in the prison, there are close to 50 inmates suffering from various disabilities, with a higher number suffering from mental illness. For the disabled, their challenges are the same, which include lack of special services and kits to address their needs.

Some of the inmates came to the prison with the disabilities, while others got crippled while serving various jail terms and their lives have never been the same.

A case in hand is that of 49-year-old Elijah Ngotho, who is serving life sentence after he was sentenced in 1999 for robbery with violence.

"In 2000 I got an eye infection, and despite seeking medical services the situation continued to deteriorate. And in April 2001. I completely lost my eye sight," Ngotho told Xinhua ahead of Int'l Day of Persons with Disabilities that falls on Dec. 3.

And with the loss of the eye-sight his family abandoned him, Ngotho had to rely on fellow inmates for basic needs. And for 14 years now, he has never seen what goes around in the prison.

Ngotho said fetching water, bathing, washing clothes, and even feeding is a problem, adding that soon after loosing his eyesight he was deeply traumatized by the ordeal.

"The prison management has been sensitive to my needs, allocating someone to help me but we need more funds from the government to address our cases," he said.

Ngotho said the blind inmates need special teachers and kits in their learning, adding that the government should consider pardoning such inmates.

For Josphat Gashundu, who hails from Kakamega and is serving life sentence, his woes date back in 2004 when a mob set on him plucking out one of his eye.

The 35-year-old, whose left leg is crippled due to polio at a tender age, found himself condemned to death before the president commuted the sentence to life.

"It's a big challenge being in prison when you are disabled as many segregate you, and surviving becomes a major challenge," he said.

He called for special cells for the disabled, saying that though the prison management has done its part, a lot needs to be done.

The woes are summed up 26-year-old Fredrick Mtambo, who is albino and is serving death sentence for robbery with violence.

The class-eight drop-out from Kitale in northwest Kenya found himself on the wrong side of the law in 2008 and he regrets everyday.

"I need special oil for my skin, but this is not provided for by the prison; and I therefore have to deal with the harsh weather conditions and sometimes getting medication is a problem," he said

Mtambo added that he just like other albinos need special eye- glasses to deal with the strong light mainly during day time but getting them is another challenge.

The inmates agree that the court and police processes are flawed up, adding that their condition exposes them to ridicule before they are jailed.

The officer in charge of the Naivasha G.K. Prison, Patrick Mwenda, admitted that the disabled have various challenges though the department committed to assisting them.

He said that they have made provisions for special diets on some cases, adding that all the disabled live in ground cells due to the stairs. "The blind ones get attached to fellow inmates, and we do provide clutches to some though our fear is that they could be used as weapons," he told Xinhua.

Mwenda added that some of cases need not be in prison as they are completely disabled and have served many years behind bars.

He said that under the new constitution, the Power of Mercy commission has been formed, and there are high hopes that some of these cases shall be reviewed. But despite this, Mwenda said the prison is committed to reforming and imparting knowledge to all the inmates.

According to Persons with Disabilities Act of 2003, disabled persons are entitled to free legal services in some cases. The act notes that the Attorney General should provide persons with disabilities free legal services in capital cases. It further states that in such cases, the suspect should be exempted from paying court fees, and be provided with sign language interpretation and Braille services where need be.

But according to Josphat Kimemia, the CEO Disability Resource and Information Center (DRIC) in Naivasha, this is merely word on paper that are never implemented, adding that the Act only addresses 60 percent of their plight.

Kimemia said that all the prisons in the country are not disabled-friendly, forcing the inmates to get double punishment as they try to adjust to the harsh conditions.

"In some courts and prisons, there are only stairs, making it hard for inmates using non-available wheelchairs to suffer," he said.

According to him, inmates requiring special kits like Braille, clutches, eye-glasses, special oil for the albinos, never get them and have to rely on their relatives.

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