Pan Africa CURE hosted the 9th International CURE conference in Nairobi, with 95 participants representing 28 countries. Committed to criminal justice and prison reform based on prisoner and human rights, many were from Africa, and participants included prior detainees from 3 continents. Pan Africa CURE is committed to supporting, preparing and accepting prisoners as returning citizens, as reflected in its slogan:
‘We support rehabilitation of Prisoners and Advocate for Reforms in the Criminal Justice System because today’s prisoners are tomorrow’s neighbours.’
The lively exchange of information and networking between participants and Kenya’s leading stakeholders was significant. In its 50th anniversary, this was a fitting landmark for International CURE and its founders. Charlie Sullivan was formally revered for CURE’s continuing and expanding global legacy for prison reform.
‘We were overwhelmed with the response, which included countries like Pakistan from the right and Cuba from the left’, commented Peter Onyango Olwal, the Coordinator of Pan Africa CURE. Its theme was to align the criminal justice system with the broader United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on rehabilitation.
While continents varied in their immediate conditions and concerns, the participants shared core issues of socioeconomic disadvantage and human rights neglect and abuses. It is vital to reduce people unnecessarily being drawn into the vortex of entering the justice system and incarceration, ask ex/prisoners what would be beneficial to reduce recidivism and use evidence-based research to direct funding, especially community-based support.
Critical factors to reducing recidivism were to provide preferred alternatives to avert the large proportion of detainees accused of minor or non-violent offences entering the justice system (particularly the use of Restorative Justice); for prisoners with meaningful opportunities in preparation for their release; to bring into prisons psychological support and other services that address issues to facilitate community safety by addressing unresolved problems that led to incarceration; and to reorient away from the very costly neoliberal industrial complex expansion and instead to reinvest in community-based supports during and after incarceration.
Peter Olwal successfully engaged two top prison officials and facilitated most participants to tour Kenya’s Naivasha Maximum Security Prison for about two hours. This prison held 2200 detainees, of which there were 1100 lifers and 9 in high security.
Responsible for the administration of justice, rehabilitation, and safe and humane custody, Kenya’s recently promoted Commissioner General Prisons Services, Brigadier John Kebaso Warioba, was a Keynote speaker at the conference, broadly supporting reforms based on human rights and humane practices for those who had made ‘mistakes’. He recognised the issues pervading the Kenyan justice system that need to be addressed including police discretion, court delays, resource efficiency, and legal fees. Overcrowding in prisons was also noted as an impediment to rehabilitation for those who are denied their liberty. He noted concern for the elderly and disabled, and incarcerated women. To ensure reintegration, he expressed his intention to provide capacity-building for trainers and provide the tools and capital and community to receive released prisoners. ‘There is no peace without justice and reiterated his mandate to reduce recidivism.’
Visiting the Naivasha prison, the participants viewed sections of the food preparation and vocational buildings. The newly appointed Principal Secretary of Prisons, Mary Muthoni Muriuki, imbued hope for change for the shockingly overcrowded and spartan conditions despite the apparent dearth of any substantial activities and opportunities for detainees. Despite having scarce belongings or available resources, prisoners appeared healthy and pleased to interact. With idiosyncratic Kenyan humour, guards presented guests with a self-effacing pantomime. Close to President Ruto, the Principal Secretary presented as a strong woman and influential leader, recognised as a highly successful and well-connected CEO. Prefacing with a short dance, her motivational address was of hope and of creating opportunities for the many thousands of lifers assembled for the event.
Urging to turn away from punishment and toward corrections, she told the conference participants about her intentions for vocational skill and business development in prisons and how the government can split profits with working prisoners. Her aims are to ‘change stigma to transformation’, ‘completely break recidivism’ and facilitate self-reliance for inmates upon release. Echoing President Ruto’s political style, she declared that all detainees must have ‘one bed, one mattress, one blanket.’
In addition to the visit, the Pan Africa CURE agenda involved ten conference panels:
- Conditions of Incarceration;
- Human Rights of the Incarcerated;
- Empowerment of the Incarcerated;
- Programs that work in Prisons;
- Sentencing of Adults and Juveniles;
- Prison Officials and Reformers: Foes or Allies;
- Faith-based Rehabilitation;
- Prison Reform and Restorative Justice;
- Women in Criminal Justice: Challenges and Creative Industries;
- Organised Advocacy.
Key Presentations and Speakers
Two ex-prisoners from the USA spoke of their experiences in the justice system and how they used these experiences to progress personally and politically.
Damien Linnane commented that basic conditions in prison, such as food and mattresses, were adequate compared to those in developing nations, though he noted many other issues existed. He focussed on the lack of equivalent healthcare in prison, in comparison to that available to those in the general community in Australia, and also commented on the continuing and unnecessary practices of strip searching and prolonged solitary confinement, which violates the Nelson Mandela Rules, and that Australia was one of the few Western nations to imprison 10-year-olds. Damien called out Australia as the most racist worldwide in terms of disproportionately incarcerating First Nations people. He spoke about police disproportionately targeting Indigenous people and also issues like police being less likely to give warnings to Indigenous Australians for minor drug use. Damien noted that despite the Australian prison system violating multiple human rights treaties, there was little way to enforce these violations as the United Nations Team against Torture had ‘no teeth’.
Charles Thornton from the Office of Returned Citizens (ex-prisoners) based in Washington DC, is involved in the inspection of the 102 federal prisons, and had just returned from the high-security Florence Prison. He brought a message from the Mayor of the District of Columbia to the conference.
Tyrone Wade was released only months ago after 26 years in USA prison. Incarcerated since he was 16 years old, Tyrone was unusually fortunate to be able to access quality psychological counselling and visual art education. While in prison, he produced many fine portraits of victims of crime, which he then gifted and graciously received from their respective families. He spoke with due consideration and enthusiasm about what worked for him and his newly expanding artist practice and business.
Dismas Omondi is a former Kenyan prisoner who, after 12 years post-incarceration, is now a CEO for the Wema Justice Centre, a paralegal to the community and supervises those on community sentences. Dismas had been condemned to death row but received assistance from CURE and was fortunate to receive a ‘Certificate of Good Conduct’ from the Kenyan Government. He noted the importance of community ties and the problems of stigma, as well as psychological problems like PTSD, where on release, he still was a sick man who needed help for recovery.
Justice Action presented in two panels. Brett Collins chaired the panel on Empowerment of the Incarcerated, standing with those incarcerated in the US and Kenyans. He emphasised how the independent role of Justice Action had been essential to its advocacy successes with its social enterprise printing company Breakout. As part of its work, the constitutionally protected ‘Just Us Newspaper‘ is distributed nationally, based on prisoner rights to receive political election material and to vote.
Justice Action was successful with its 20-year campaign in Australia to get computers into prisoners’ cells. This is a game-changer for prisoners to engage in meaningful activities in their cells: counselling, education, personal development, telehealth, and maintaining family contact. The import model for accessing publicly funded mainstream services in prison cells, and personal use of time for earning money is now available. The conference endorsed and adopted the ‘Nairobi Declaration for Detainee Telecommunications Rights.’
Loretta Picone addressed current Australian issues concerning the Sentencing of Adults and Juveniles. These pertained to the beneficial effects: of reducing over-policing (especially for first nations people); raising the age of youth detention to at least 14 years; changing bail laws to avert people entering the judicial system and incarceration; engaging elders in sentencing and diversionary methods by significantly expanding Circle Sentencing and Koori Courts; expanding peer mentoring; installing computers use in cells for adults and youth to enable external support services (to family, friends, legal, health, educational, and transitional services).
As Australia is the most disproportionate in its incarceration of its First Nations people, the effect of these would benefit them. These reforms of a ‘broken system’ would implement the 1987 Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody recommendations. The international exposure of our treatment of juveniles shamed Australia to become a signatory to the United Nations Optional Protocol against Torture.
Retired academic and volunteer in the Prison Ministry, Professor Bruno Van Der Maat from Peru proposed a better alternative to evaluating overcrowding than space indicator by using functional indicators and prison standards that focus on staff ratios of administration, qualified staff, including for rehabilitation, and security. Not unlike the global situation, in Peruvian prisons, the profile of staff type is reversed to what is needed, with notable averages of inmate per staff showing increasing staff in security while qualified rehabilitation and administration staff are reducing. He gifted all conference members two booklets that would be beneficial to prison reform: one detailing qualitative overcrowding functional indicator research and one on the ancient practices of restorative justice.
Hans Hallundback, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and co-founder of Rehabilitation through the Arts and the Interfaith Prison Partnership spoke of the work of the prison chaplains, with access to the UN, and the impact of art on prisoners.
Health through Walls CEO, Ivan Calder referred to the significant benefit to prisoners to assist low-resource countries in implementing sustainable health care services. Operating for 20 years, it currently works in 6 countries (3 in the Caribbean, 3 in Africa). The United Nations funded (with technology companies) the MINUSCA program. Its goal is to medically assess all in prison, to use peer support for all conditions, and assess public health risks (prisons are the infection hotbeds for the community). This includes providing a range of mobile/hand-held devices/equipment (some it provides for free), such as for chest X-rays. Tuberculosis has been a big killer, and COVID-19 has exceeded it. He noted concern for 51% malnutrition and prevalence of mental health (2% on the most severe SMI rating, with over 80% being Anxiety and depression).
Joanne Blaney from Brazil chaired the panel on Women and Criminal Justice. Challenges of women in prison include high levels of gender-based violence, inability to access health care, poor nutrition (in some cases lack of food) and lack of access to justice. Panelists included participants from Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cuba, Kenya and the United States. Fatamata Binta Bah of AdvocAid, Sierra Leone, shared her work to educate, empower and provide access to legal justice for women and Selam Kibret and Banchayahu Bekele of Ethiopia shared stories illustrating the economic, social and legal challenges for women prisoners as well as hopeful ways of empowerment and access to justice. Other panelists shared hopeful ways to help women spiritually, physically and emotionally.
The Centre for Legal Support and Inmate Rehabilitation operates to provide legal support and services, providing the First Safe House for formerly incarcerated women in Nigeria. It was made possible by the pro bono work of lawyers, Joke Aladesanmi in Nigeria and Anne Munyua in Kenya, and from the USA founder of A New Way of Life.
Other notable speakers included Clean Start Africa CEO and founder Teresa Njoroge which operates in Kenya and provides post-incarceration adjustment services for women prisoners. Dream Deferred Executive Director, Frantz Michel, spoke of training Clean Start personnel in technology training and provided many computers. Also, Dawn Addy, from Alternatives to Violence and the Director of the Florida International University’s Labor Center, spoke of her organisation’s work. She has initiated many programs across the USA teaching alternatives to violence.