Prison visits tricky in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic

Eldoret Main Prison

Prison visitation is a critical right for inmates to keep in touch with the outside world during their period of incarceration so they can build a new life after the conclusion of the custodial sentence.

It strengthens bonds with families and friends so that they can develop resilience to cope with life during the jail period and after their release.

Such visits help prisoners avoid depression, avoid hatching jailbreak plans, avoid hostility amongst prisoners themselves and even prison staff.

Visitation of prisoners is not a privilege but a right. United Nations standard minimum rules provide for prison visitation. Under laws of Kenya Cap 90, part V this right is also well captured and as such it is rather evident that visitation is a right to the prisoners and not a privilege.

However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. We are living very precarious times and in the middle of a pandemic that has turned the world upside down as we talk. Since the first case was reported in Kenya in March 2020, the Ministry of Health issued new guidelines in arresting the spread of the disease.

The President in his first Covid-19 address suspended all prison visitation. His decision was justifiable as prisoners are some of the most vulnerable people in Kenya. We still have the challenges of overcrowding in our prisons; poor sanitation, dilapidated structures and failure to take precautions to controll the disease could be disastrous.

A case in point is the visit by this reporter to Eldoret Main prison is a clear indication that our prisons are overcrowded. The current number at the men’s prison stands at 1300 inmates and this was an effort by the government to mitigate Covid-19 in our prisons by reducing the number but still it’s crowded. Before Covid-19, the number of inmates stood at 2,500, which was a serious case of congestion.

It is now two years and counting and depression is rising among the prisoners having diverse effects such as prisoners hatching escape plans, prisoners harboring suicidal thoughts, low morale in terms of engaging in meaningful labour and rehabilitation programs, prisoners’ conflict among other diverse effects.

The uptake of medicinal drugs from prison health facilities has also risen exponentially. Prisoners are being overtaken by depression and the visitation ban has had tremendous impact, but limiting visitation is doing more harm than good to them.

At least there is vaccination, which is trying to bring some normalcy to the world. However, in Africa we have a big challenge in vaccination. We are talking of vaccination pegged at 3 percent in Kenya. We are now staring at the fourth wave and it’s evident that Covid-19 will be with us for quite some time. We have to develop ways and means to reduce the effect that lack of visitation has had on the prisoners.

First and foremost we need to activate guidance and counselling in all our penal institutions. We need experts who can talk to our prisoners and even staff day in day out. Depressed prisoners need some guidance to safeguard them and react to situations that will negatively affect them. Eldoret main Prison has only one psycho mental expert who has been doing it religiously as a community social responsibility (CSR) but one expert against 1300 people is far from achieving any meaningful results.

There is also an aspect of embracing technology. Many government employees have been working from home in the recent past, they have participated in virtual activities that have put us on a potential to minimize physical interactions. Nations such as the USA, New Zealand and Britain just to name a few, who have embraced video visitation have proved to be cheaper and efficient.

Big challenge for our country may be pulling together enough resources but this can be achieved through engaging some non-governmental organizations, or even the government can engage other governments to get some help in funding this kind of venture. We boast as a nation of having the fastest internet connectivity not only in Africa but at the world level. This puts us in a better position to make this idea a success.

The Judiciary is a perfect example in embracing virtual courts that have turned out to be successful. If well supported, the prison department can also conduct virtual visitation in a very effective manner. The Prison Department can then inform the general public with relatives in custody of such technology, and then they can be in a position to contact their relatives in prisons.

Mobile phones are also available in the prison’s welfare department. Government can ensure a considerable amount of money goes to the airtime budget which will enable them to communicate with their families and relatives. Government can also engage service providers for the prison department to get a favorable deal that is a bit cheaper than normal calls. This will enable the prisoners to communicate with their loved ones and reduce the tension that they worry much about their loved ones they left behind.

Physical visitation above all is the best way prisoners can engage their families, relatives and friends. Government can also revise the terms of visitation and put in place measures that will enable them to communicate without any hiccups. Ministry of Health guidelines can be followed to the letter of course by enforcement from the prison staff.

Government can also invest in research in trying to unearth what is ailing our prisons and rectify some of the perennial problems experienced year in year out. The world today is manageable through research and this of course comes with expenses. We have a vaccine for Covid-19 today because of some sacrifice on research by experts even in our case we have experts who can inform the necessary measures through accurate research findings.

We need to be very dynamic in our thinking too. Right to visitation of prisoners is theirs but the right to life is paramount. We can’t condemn the government but for every action there is a reaction we need to explore ways in helping this vulnerable lot by ensuring they at least live a dignified life.

  

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