Wanini Kireri is changing the leadership landscape in the Kenya's prison system. Kireri oversees both men’s and women’s prisons across the country, where her leadership style has been hailed as firm but humane.
Kireri is the first woman in Kenya’s Prison Service to hold the position of senior assistant commissioner of prisons, and the first to lead the Prison Staff Training College, based in Ruiru, central Kenya, as its commandant.
She joined the Kenya Prisons in 1982 and has been steadily rising through the ranks at the various institutions she has served.
Kireri says her second stint at Langata Women’s Prison, situated in the capital, Nairobi, was the turning point in her career and the beginning of her legacy in the prison system.
“I have seen my journey, what I have done, my impact in Kenya prisons, because I became a change agent, and it takes a lot of boldness,” she said.
Kireri was the first officer in charge of Langata Women’s prison, where she allowed media cameras into the correctional facility that showed for the first time how female inmates and their babies were being treated. Then, the inmates were sleeping on the floor, with limited basic supplies like sanitary towels and diapers for the babies.
She says the desire to change the institutions was also borne out of what she had witnessed as a junior officer.
“I didn’t like a lot that was going on. I could see the mistreatment, but now as a very young officer and junior, because there’s an officer in charge, there’s little you could do about it. And if you become a little kind to prisoners, it’s like there is something that is not right with you,” Kireri said.
That kindness, she says, is what has helped her to successfully navigate administration duties, even in Shimo la Tewa, a maximum-security prison for men located in the coastal city of Mombasa.
“I did not go with that character of ‘I’m the boss.’ I went with that character of like a mother, as much as I’m an administrator, I went with the character of a mother. I remember within one month, they were all very comfortable, and I would listen and I realized, it’s just about listening,” Kireri said.
Peter Ouko, a former inmate and now founder of a non-governmental organization that focuses on social justice, says a combination of respecting human rights laws in prison settings and Kireri’s personal qualities serve her well.
“You could see Wanini doing this, but she depended on the people below her. So, she’s a people person, she’s a servant leader, and the leadership was not only amongst her staff, [but] it was also amongst the inmates. So, it was a holistic approach and that’s why the changes were effected very fast,” Ouko said.
Vincent Mapesa, a long-serving prison officer, echoes his sentiments. He worked under seven male prison bosses before working with Kireri and says the prison is doing much better now.
“It is the conducive environment that she has created amongst our officers. No discrimination, it depends on your ability and your passion to work and she values every officer under her and that is the biggest difference, which is different from the former men that we were working under,” Mapesa said.
Kireri says she is hopeful that she will continue to climb the leadership ladder and maybe one day lead the entire Kenya Prisons Service, as she urges other women not to shy away from taking up leadership positions and challenging themselves.