Hotel California: the horrors of Kenya’s police department

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African American in Prison

BY Yasin Arkanuddin

My abdomen clenched like a fist, my bladder tightened, and any need I had to relieve myself instantly disappeared. I wretched and recoiled in disgust as I reflexively ducked back out of the police prison cell toilets.

I have grown up in boarding school and lived in the poor areas of Nairobi city without sewerage but nothing can prepare you to board in the stench generated by the mound of human faeces that was slowly decomposing two walls away from the office of the Officer in Charge of Station Kilimani Police Station. How did he survive here? How could he allow this in his facility?

I fled back to my cell barely three metres away. I realised how important it was that the cell had only bars where there had probably been meant to be windows, otherwise, given our olfactory senses are directly wired to our brains, the odour would have driven us, the detainees, insane. 

I had never been incarcerated before, but now begun my journey through the so called “correctional system”. All I knew about it I had only heard about or read about or been entertained with in popular television shows and movies.

I had instinctively hated school all my life, boarding or day, never understanding why. Now, as a much older man in the prison system it dawned on me just why. School, like prison, I realised, is an instrument to break will. It is designed to condition one to surrender not just rights but your right to choose, your freewill. Voluntarily.

In school, you slowly learnt the questions you could ask and those you couldn’t, even when you were deviously encouraged and prodded to inquire. After a sufficient number years, you intuitively self-censored. You intuitively knew what you could ask and what you couldn’t.

The world you were being prepared for, as it turned out, was a large school. The truth was irrelevant. The schools rules, syllabus, and textbooks were your truth, they were all the thoughts you were allowed to have. You were not to think let alone speak outside the rules, syllabus, textbooks. Ever.

I had not learnt the primary lesson of school, probably given I spent it all waiting to leave, which is why I was now here. I was back in “school” where I was expressly told what I was supposed to learn. There were no covert behavioural conditioning programs, no subliminal messaging. I had distributed a leaflet containing thoughts and ideas that were outside “the approved syllabus” to the public, read speeches endeavouring to wake my fellow “school mates” up to the fraud being perpetrated upon us. And this, I was finding out, is punishable by law.

You do not ask why young Muslim men disappear at the rate of four-a-week in Eastleigh, a predominantly Muslim area, or why their tortured bodies turn up in the Tsavo and others lost forever.

You do not ask why the leaders who purported to speak for Muslims were silent on the spate of State-sponsored killings but loud on pledges of allegiance and calls to the impotent ritual of democratic voting during elections. I had asked “why?” You do not ask “why?”

It is the one question, you can never ask, either in school or outside.

My odyssey was just beginning.

I was shuttled between police station, a “grand tour” you might call it, during which I would learn about the ugly underbelly of the territory’s penal system.

Back to Kilimani Police Station. 

The cell floor has steel rings, with two thirds of the circumference emerging from the floor, while the other third remains anchored in the concrete. I could not figure out what function they served until, two days later, an apparent veteran of the prison system, made his regular visit. He explained to us the rings were from colonial times. Rebellious natives wouldn’t just be locked in, they would be chained to the floors to the rings.

It was horrifying to imagine.

There are many analyses and arguments that endeavour to reveal the continued existence of the colonial state in the incorporeal aspects of “modern Africa” i.e. in its politics and economics, but a tour of the police and penal infrastructure reveals the imperial colonialist state to be also physically intact – down to the rings, chains and bars that shackled our grandfathers. There had been no attempt at even a cosmetic make-over. The buildings are the exact same ones, including the cells.

I would later learn the Kilimani Police Station was the preferred holding facility for native elites. I feared to imagine what the rest were like.

I was hauled before a magistrate, early Tuesday morning, for her to determine how long the Anti-Terror Police Unit could hold me while conducting investigations on my supposed “terror activities”. My lawyer endeavoured to have me incarcerated at the Anti-Terror Police Unit’s holding facility, explaining to the Magistrate that the devilish intention of the arresting officers to hold me while presumed innocent in regular police cells was to inflict mental torture as they knew what a few weeks in their stinking decrepit infrastructure would do to a sane human being. The Magistrate granted our appeal. Of course, she not follow-up to monitor implementation of her orders; once you are out of court, the police do as they please.

My arresting officer was a vindictive banshee from Mt Kenya, my native homeland, but this was not going to be any boon. Her interrogations with me did not go well, at least according to her, and she was going to punish me for what she perceived to be absolute insolence – her interpretation of what I knew to be truthful answers to her questions.

I was slowly learning that there was nothing that the oppressor hated more than the truth. There are only two possibilities in the face of truth; submission to it, where it engulfed you or, if you are foolish enough, attacking it and disintegrating. She chose to deal with the messenger. She screamed at me louder and scaled up the oppression by holding me in the worst police facilities she knew. 

I was transferred to Muthaiga Police Station after a week of interrogations about everything but a felony or misdemeanour. Not once was I asked or told what crime I was being held for but, just like in school, I intuitively knew.

Three questions were repeated in different order and context: Do you believe in Jihad? Do you support Kenya Defence Force’s war in Somalia? Have you ever been to Somalia?

They knew I had committed no criminal offence, that is why there wasn’t a single question about anything I had done. My “thoughts” were the crime! It is one thing to read George Orwell and a complete other to live it! How were they content to persecute me? How did they live with this moral dilemma? How did the police go home every day to their children and manage to find sleep knowing they had their fellow innocent countryman locked up in a cell? Paul Laurits writes in his blog that police training and institutions are designed to completely destroy a human being’s moral agency. To know this from reading and to experience it were completely different phenomena. Was this the dissonance Nabi Yusuf suffered as his brothers lowered him into a hole in the wild?

The Muthaiga Police Station outhouse was literally outside the cell block. We had to beg, bribe, grovel, hurl insults and vitriol for the duty officers to let us visit it. The corridor ended being the temporary crapper.

I was checked in to Muthaiga on Friday evening. It was dark, dire and strangely sparsely populated. I sighed with relief. Alas, ignorance is bliss, for my comfort was to be short lived.

At approximately ten o’clock that night there was a loud commotion in the yard outside. “Ndani, ndani!” (Get in, get in!). Suddenly, the three nine square metre cells were flooded by a multitude of what I estimated to be over a hundred detainees! A few were stoned but the rest seemed as sober as anyone you’d pass in the street on a weekday. And. as it turns out, they were.

It was dark but we could make each other out in the light reflected from the yard outside. When one of them established eye contact I asked, “What is going on? Where are you all from? What are you all doing here?” He explained he had been netted in “an operation” while on his way home from work. “How?” I asked incredulously. This world was new to me and his polite tone made me confident enough to ask. 

He explained that every Friday police randomly cordon off different areas of public roads in Mathare, a nearby slum area, and sweep everyone caught in between in to police trucks. It was his unlucky day.

That sounded just preposterous. In my mind I thought “there must be legitimate reasons for these so called “operations”. These dragnets could not just be mass shakedowns; that was unfathomably malevolent. It was simply unbelievable. And he nonchalantly told me this happened every weekend!

We fell into silence, with the occasional scuffles and fights as the drunks were disciplined by their sober comrades, who in this space had little patience for their shenanigans. It was so cramped that we had to lock into each other’s thighs in squatting positions to settle in for the night and try to get some sleep. But the cramps and the freezing cold wouldn’t let any come. Why on earth would they do this? Who on earth would they do this to his fellow human beings? I knew police to be inhumane but again, to know and to experience were two different things.

At about 2 a.m. there was a loud shouting and banging on the steel doors of the cell block. We could hardly see, as the lights in the yard had been switched off. The police stormed the cells with torches and ordered everyone who heard their name to cross the floor to where they stood, arms holding rifles and batons. Apparently it was roll call. I felt thankful for the rude interruption, the movement would allow us to walk and relieve the cramps, little knowing the open door was the gateway to another trial.

As names were called out, the police would randomly beat up detainees as they crossed the open space between them. Roll call was running a gauntlet, literally.

Nights are long when out in the cold, but in Kenya’s jail they nights last forever. You can be certain death from cold will find you long before the dawn does.

But our will to live is stronger than we often think, and dawn does come – even in hell for a believer. When morning arrives, you are served two slices and hot tea, and most importantly, given a chance to visit the lavatory. Afterwards, you are locked up again, to continue the wait.

Wait for what, you ask? Not for your sins to be read, not for redemption, not even for damnation. You wait for extortion, your ransom to be read.

The caricature of an OCS (Officer in Charge of Station) waddled in to the yard outside our cell block at 9 p.m. We were swept out of the cells on the double. Everyone could tell by the obsequiousness of the constables that he was the King here, his word was law.

He held out a two foot long book like a scroll. He read out the names of about seven of us, those who did not fall within his domain of control given we were “terror suspects” and glared at us like we were criminals as he ordered us to be escorted back to the cells. We stretched our necks to watch the proceedings through the elevated barred windows of our cell block.

The list of approximately one hundred plus detainees was read out without pause, at the end of which, in the guttural voice of a terribly unhealthy two hundred and fifty pound bully, he announced every single individual whose name he had called out was charged with being “drunk and disorderly”, and would have to pay two thousand shillings as police bail. He cued the police constables to herd them all back into the cell block.

Why on earth would they do this, I had tortured myself pondering the previous night. This was why the cells were empty when I’d arrived; they’d been cleared for the herd that was to be brought in for the night!

The one thing you have plenty of in jail is time. We all got to know each other. I sat next to the polite young man I had talked to the night before and got talking, sometime asking probing questions looking for contradictions that would reveal deceit. None availed themselves.

John – that was his name – worked as a temporary worker at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Industrial area. When he was arrested, he was on his way home from work using the same route he used every day. He told me he didn’t take alcohol and I believed him. He was a decent human being in every sense of the word, a law-abiding citizen with a wife at home. He told me it was not the first time he had been caught in these “operations”. His wife new what to do; they had a process. He would call her from the cell – the police availed a cell phone for that purpose – she would go to the drawer where he kept his ATM card, she’d withdraw some money and come to bail him out. Yes, they had kidnap insurance! It was unbelievable.

But as luck would have it, his wife’s phone had been stolen, he could not reach her in time for her to save his temporary job. Not only was he under arrest for no reason other than extortion but he would also likely lose his job as he now was not going to report to work not just on Saturday but also possibly on Monday – without reason as far as his employer would know.

During the rest of the Saturday and Sunday all manner of people were brought in for one ransom, sorry reason, or another – from traffic violations to domestic quarrels, business disputes, and so on. The list of problems that brought people in was endless but the answer that led out was only one: cash. The correctional system was a revolving door with free entry but paid exit.

The prison, the judiciary and policing, it is all one large extraction industry. Those who go through it are processed, not “corrected”. Our freedom is sold back to us, at least a “truncated version” of it.

The “correctional” extraction industry’s mine is the country, while it’s minerals are the people’s “freedoms”. The entire territory is a large prison, with ever increasing tripwires and contracting walls configured as laws, by-laws and boundaries that calibrate the extent of the “freedoms”. The population works to earn money to pay taxes that will keep the walls from contracting on them or their family members individually, and prevent the tripwires from triggering the leg-lock traps. Essentially, it is an endless cycle of purchasing and re-purchasing “freedom”.

The entire Westphalian Nation-State Capitalist system, with all its glitter and promise is just one large mine of slaves, run by over-glorified guards and taskmasters. With slaves working in different parts and different levels of the mine, in order to serve time in specific cells and cell blocks with different levels of comfort and space. It is a panopticon equipped with an intricate system of locks and permission levels to control movement either horizontally or vertically within the cells and cell blocks. It is 1984.

For instance, the other six “terror suspects” I had been brought in with were Maasai herders from Tanzania. They had been picked up in Narok town for failing to show ID. How Maasai men herding goats in the Rift Valley, something they have done for centuries, had become “terror suspects” was beyond me and beyond them given they didn’t even understand what “terror” or “terror suspect” meant. But here they were, “terror suspects”.

Fortunately, there is nowhere angels sent cannot reach you, even in the darkest of dungeons. Mine was sent in the form of my new Investigating Officer.

The Muthaiga chapter of my odyssey ended early the following Monday morning. 

That morning, my name alone was called. It immediately struck me as strange. I stepped out into the yard to find my Investigating Officer waiting for me. He had come to rescue me from my ordeal. I immediately felt an overwhelming surge of fraternal affection for him. I now understand Stockholm Syndrome.

I walked out in slow uncertain steps, burdened with mixed feelings. Even as my heart soared in what it saw as my escape, it was weighed down by guilt. My fellow “terror suspect” detainees, the Maasai herdsmen, had looked at me with desperately hopeful eyes when my name was called out. 

“Wametukujia?” (Have they come for us?) they asked in anguish, hoping we would all be returned to the Terror Unit holding facility with its working toilets and urine-free floors. I could hear them calling me, but I couldn’t look back. I still can’t. I knew then in hell no man will care about his fellow man’s plight. It is not possible. You can barely bear the heat of your own fires, how then can you another man’s? In hell on earth, so too it is, “every man for himself…”.

I do not know if John lost his job at Coca-cola or when he was released.

I was at the Anti-Terror Police Unit holding facility for only a few more days before being promoted to full remand at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison’s Solitary Confinement Block, to await either conviction and release into the general prison population of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison or acquittal and release in to the general prison population of Kenya.

This is Hotel California, “…you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!” 

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