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Officials warm up to private prisons after learning tour

Brian Waswa Buyela with his family when they visited him at Kamiti Prison during a recent open day at the institution. The Prisons Department is seeking ways to decongest jails. File
Brian Waswa Buyela with his family when they visited him at Kamiti Prison during a recent open day at the institution. The Prisons Department is seeking ways to decongest jails. File 

The Prisons Service officials have completed two learning visits on how private prisons operate in South Africa and Britain, as the country gears up to ease congestion and improve jails.

Kenya’s prison population is 49,000 but the official capacity is 22,000, the senior deputy commissioner of Prisons, Benjamin Njoga told the Business Daily. “The option of private prisons is an idea that has been explored and accepted here, and we plan to bring it on board,” said Mr Njoga.

The lessons from South Africa and Britain will help the Prisons Department to implement legislation to facilitate the entry of the private sector and define contractual measures.

Mr Njoga said the option of the private prisons is favoured because it will help to decongest prisons and help introduce new correctional measures that equip prisoners with skills that will enable them to integrate more easily into the society.

At present, most prisoners are taught basic occupational skills, focused primarily on furniture making. To be employed, however, they need to know how to use information technology.

The population of Kenya prisons has grown tremendously after years of failure by the government to invest in new infrastructure. It is only in the last decade that the government started reforms that have led to improvement in living conditions.

A prison reform analyst said a privatised prison system is worth a trial in Kenya to find out if it will lead to improved management, including better housing, food and respect for human rights.

“We should try one and see how it works,” said Fatma Dullo, a prison reforms expert at the Kenya National Human Rights Commission.

Last month, private security company G4S visited Nairobi and expressed interest in partnering with the government to manage some of the prison services.

“The response from the government concerning G4S being a partner in prison reforms and other outsourcing work has been positive,” G4S global CEO Nick Buckles told the Business Daily.

The company would be able to start operations quickly.

G4S is also bidding for electronic monitoring of prisoners under house arrest, where they wear a bracelet that sends signals if the prisoner leaves a restricted area. Such a system is effectively used in Europe and the US, and helps ease the costs of incarceration.

G4S already manages prisons in six countries across the world, said Mr. Buckles. In Africa, it manages a prison with the capacity for 2,500 prisoners in Bloemfontein, South Africa. It also runs several immigration and juvenile prisons in Britain.

If the deal goes through, G4S will set up its own prison services infrastructure, the company said.

Debate exists, however, on the cheaper option. One US study in 2003 showed that private prisons are more cost-effective by 11.69 per cent to 13.8 per cent. There are also fewer critical incidents and serious assaults on inmates. More inmates complete basic education, literacy, and vocational training courses, the study said.

But another report on privatisation of prisons in Scotland in 2006 shows that there is no definite research that indicated services to prisoners and conditions of imprisonment are “significantly improved in privately operated facilities.”

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