Naivasha GK, Kenya’s largest maximum-security prison located just north of the capital Nairobi, is using a mindfulness training program to control violence and bring inmates and guards closer together.
Tensions were rife within Naivasha GK, where more than 2,000 men are serving life sentences or awaiting the death penalty. The prison is known as a hotbed of violence and, with the colonial-era facilities operating at well over 100 per cent capacity, the conditions are harsh and unremitting.
Numerous instances have been reported of prisoners attacking wardens—as many inmates carried an intense hatered for the guards, whom they see as symbols of the authority that put them in prison—and of guards torturing inmates, leading to a constant state of pressure and despair. In an attempt to deflate tensions and improve the atmosphere, the prison has sought the help of an unlikely source of solace: mindfulness.
Dr. Inmaculada Adarves-Yorno, a lecturer in leadership studies at Britain’s University of Exeter, introduced the idea to the prison’s management. The mindfulness program seeks to improve prison culture by inspiring the inmates to become mindful leaders.
The mindfulness sessions are led by specially trained guards, who encourage prisoners and guards alike to share their fears and vulnerabilities to bridge the gulf between people on either side of the bars.
“Between me and them it was like hell and heaven. There was nowhere we could meet. We could not see eye to eye. I saw them as killers,” said Willis Opondo, an inmate serving a life sentence. “When someone died in my cell, I stayed with the body for almost three days without saying because I knew the kind of beating I would receive, even though I didn’t kill him.” (BBC)
The mindfulness program offered him a sanctuary where he could slowly learn to let go of his pain, fear, and negative emotions. “Today, I see the guards as my brothers, my keepers. We can talk, we can chat, we can laugh. They can give me hope. We no longer call them afande (sir), we refer to them as our teachers.” (BBC)
The sessions have also greatly increased understanding among the guards at Naivasha GK, who participate in the sessions. As Kevin Onyango, a guard at Naivasha GK, notes: “Over time I have learned how to be composed, to keep my emotions in check. I have learned that these people are human beings first, as much as they are prisoners.” (BBC)
Although the results of the intiative, which was launched in 2015, suggest that the program has significantly improved prison life, not all the inmates are convinced. As one inmate, who did eventually join the program, noted: “It felt funny and stupid. I found it weird. How do you just breathe in and out and sit quietly for 10 minutes?” (BBC)
As a result, not all of the inmates go through the program, but of those who take the step to join a medition session, most complete the course and the results speak for themselves. The inmates seem to have developed stronger bonds both inside and outside of the prison and 80–90 per cent of the 140 surveyed inmates noted that they were less stressed and less angry than before. In addition, they observed that they were less inclined to engage in conflict and aggression, were more forgiving, and were using less alcohol and drugs.
And this has been reflected in the overall atmosphere in the prison as Matthew Mutisya, the assistant commissioner in charge of Naivasha GK, noted: “We have fewer riots and attempted escapes. I can walk inside the prison without being armed. Many of them are less aggressive.” (BBC)
The program has also been introduced to many other institutions across the African continent, where it is starting to improve the day-to-day lives of thousands of inmates.
As one inmate from Naivasha GK stated: “I may never leave prison, but I am now free.”(The Conversation)