Will Kenya's proposed prison for extremists help to combat terror?


In a bid to stem radicalisation in prisons, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently announced plans to construct a new prison that would house only extremist offenders. This development raises more questions than answers, however.

Immediate concerns relate to how human rights and rule of law measures will be applied, and whether separating inmates in this way will indeed result in the intended outcomes. Recent reports that al-Shabaab has infiltrated prisons and is actively recruiting in prisons are cause for concern, but whether separate prisons are justified remains questionable.

President Kenyatta’s plans follow a similar announcement by British Prime Minister David Cameron, which has been met with alarm by prison officials and warnings from British counter-terrorism experts. They argue that such an approach could likely allow extremist groups like the Islamic State to build a command structure in such a facility.

The Kenyan government already faces serious criticism from human rights groups

In contrast, the United States (US) is actively seeking to shut down its prison in Guantanamo Bay due to the ongoing ethical and legal controversy the prison has attracted over the years.

Presenting his plans to the US Congress in February, President Barack Obama argued that the detention centre had not advanced the national security of the US, but had rather undermined it. ‘Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values. [It] undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law,’ Obama said.

The Kenyan government already faces serious criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty International for harsh and life-threatening prison conditions. The state has also been condemned for arbitrary arrests, detention and the prolonged pre-trial detention of terror suspects, who reportedly also face torture and abuse while in custody.

Previous counter-terrorism responses by the government have largely tended to be reactionary rather than proactive in approach, and therefore unpopular and unsustainable. During the notorious Operation Usalama Watch in 2014, there were numerous reports of Somali individuals being profiled, arbitrarily arrested and detained. This was made worse by a reported failure of the police to document suspects in their records, thus making it difficult to locate them. There were also allegations of terror suspects being held for extended periods of time in dubious locations, such as in forests, following security sweeps in Lamu in 2014. These reports bring into question the capacity, competence and respect of implicated state actors for laws relating to the detention and arrests of terror suspects.

Isolating prisoners in the name of counter-radicalisation is likely to be counter-productive

Currently, Shimo la Tewa GK prison in Mombasa and Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi hold Kenya’s largest number of inmates associated with terror offences – this number is reportedly around 240. The former holds approximately 160 suspects accused of carrying out terrorist attacks, radicalisation and violent take-overs of mosques at the coast. These suspects are housed in a separate block.

There have been few convictions of terrorist suspects, and it is reported that the Shimo La Tewa prison could be serving as a conduit for recruitment in other prisons across the country.

Given fears that the al-Shabaab has infiltrated Kenya’s prisons, the government no doubt has a challenge to curb recruitment and radicalisation in these facilities. In announcing the new prison plans, the President argued that such a prison would deter extremist offenders ‘from spreading their venom to vulnerable Kenyans.’ In July 2015, three prisoners had earlier petitioned the national assembly to separate inmates associated with terrorism offences given concerns that prisons were turning into fertile grounds for recruitment and radicalisation.

Reports indicate that some efforts to curb this are already underway, including a programme to station imams within Shimo-La Tewa and Kamiti, which started in 2015. The programme aims to offer counter-narratives to radical messaging within the prisons. Generally. However, evidence suggests that isolating prisoners in the name of counter-radicalisation is likely to be counter-productive.

Instead of curbing recruitment and radicalisation, a facility like that could make it easier for terror groups to establish command and control structures as noted earlier, in addition to elevating such facilities to symbols of martyrdom and oppression to extremist sympathisers. In this way, it could further embolden, fuel and rally support and sympathy for terror groups – in addition to increasing the chances of Kenya being further targeted for its actions.

Kenya’s current prison population is more than double the holding capacity of the system

Another factor is Kenya’s budgetary constraints, which have resulted in overcrowded and understaffed prisons. How a new prison would be funded is therefore an important question. The current prison population is more than double the holding capacity of the system. The population stands at 54 579; against a capacity of 26 687 in 108 prisons across the country. The proposed prison also raises concern around gender considerations and how these will be catered for. Approximately 5.3% of the prison population is female, raising questions around housing female terror suspects and the protection of child suspects of terrorism offences in prison facilities.

Kenya ought to consider such plans not only in terms of its approach to counter-terrorism, but also through the lens of its correctional and rehabilitation policies. From both perspectives, these require evidence-based, long-term and sustainable responses. A comprehensive review of imprisonment policies is necessary in terms of international and national human rights obligations, and rehabilitation ‘good practices’.

From a counter-terrorism perspective, the government must be led by its constitutional mandate to balance its national security needs with the rights of individuals. It must guard against quick-fix approaches intended to assuage public pressure. A great deal of research-based evidence is available and may be brought to bear in carving out these policies.

The government also needs to publicly release its National Counter-Radicalisation Strategy, announced in 2015. This will better illuminate its approach to countering violent extremism. This should offer a comprehensive plan, which must include prisons, amongst other concerns of the country, including youth radicalisation and recruitment.

Irene Ndungu, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Nairobi

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