NAIVASHA, KENYA - It is exam time at Naivasha maximum security prison in central Kenya.
Inside a church building opposite the recreation yard, 18 inmates are taking Kenya's standardized secondary education test, the KCSE.
The prisoners sit at school desks holding pen cases and plastic protractors. If it were not for their pinstripes - the standard issue prison uniform - it would look like any other classroom.
“We want to tell you that we are no longer criminals,” says David Noah Okwemba, a student inmate, who has just finished the exam for history and biology. “Actually, we are students.”
While standardized tests will cause anxiety in any student, there is a lot more on the line here than in most classrooms.
Prisoners who perform well can actually have their sentences commuted to a non-custodial status. In other words, they can be released early to go to university or find jobs on the outside.
Patrick Mwenda, the head officer at Naivasha, says the prison works with the high courts to review the cases of those prisoners who get high marks.
“We request them after the results are out to consider putting them on probation, those who are not serving very long sentences,” he says. “Out of that, others are encouraged to work hard.”
Mwenda says nine prisoners have been released since 2008 as a result of their academic performances.
Power of mercy
But the rewards, so far, have only gone to prisoners serving relatively short sentences.
For those facing life imprisonment, and those who have exhausted their appeals, the only other recourse is Kenya's Power of Mercy committee, established in 2011 to advise the president on pardoning convicts.
While acknowledging the difficulties of getting a pardon, Mwenda says the prison encourages students with longer sentences to build skills so they have a good record to show the committee.
“You better do something so that at least it can be seen that you are ready to join society out there, that you are working hard,” he says. “But if you're not, then you will remain with us forever.”
Inmate Prince Winsor Mosii is discouraged by the whole system.
“The problem is that the Power of Mercy is not actually helpful,” he says. “It is there, but it is not helping in setting us at liberty, even if you have performed.”
Mosii is serving a life sentence for his involvement in an armed robbery. He took his KCSE exam last year, and teaches English, biology and agriculture. But he says he does not see much point in getting an education if he is to remain behind bars.
“It is of no good to get or to acquire something of great value here, let's talk of skills, and not put it into action, into practice,” he says.
Sense of worth
More than half of the 3,000 inmates at the Naivasha prison are involved in the school program, while others may learn vocational skills like tailoring and carpentry.
All across the compound, prisoners can be seen clutching their school books, or clustered up in study sessions.
Classes are taught by fellow inmates and prison officers.
The school principal, Bonaventure Mutali, a former math teacher, is serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend, although he says he did not do it.
“Education is a continuous process in one's life, and education can also change a person,” he says. “Most of them never had the opportunity to attend formal schools out there.”
The school is in a unique position, being a private academy inside a public institution.
For supplies, the program relies on donors, well-wishers and whatever money can be made from selling products made by the vocational students.
The curriculum and the classwork are decided by the inmates themselves, and instruction is imbued with personal experience.
In between the housing blocks, inmate Ernest Bwire teaches a class on evangelism, telling a group of about 40 other prisoners about the importance of preaching to the poor.
Originally from Uganda, he was arrested in 1989, saying only he was a “victim of circumstance.”
In prison, Bwire says he found God and began teaching other inmates. He is a popular instructor and he boasts about a time one of the prison guards sat it on his English class.
He says teaching gives him the feeling that he is worthy.
“It helps me to understand that it's not all lost, because of being in prison,” he says. “It is not all lost.”