Vickie Wambura is reducing the rate of recidivism in Kenya’s prisons by focusing on rehabilitation and shifting society’s negative prejudices and stereotypes of prisoners.
The New Idea
Vickie is unlocking the potential of ex-prisoners and reducing their rate of recidivism by redefining the role of prisons as safe spaces for reformation as well as professional and personal development. She engages citizens, including teachers, corporate professionals, students, university professors and well-wishers, as volunteers to reform, train and treat prisoners. By making society part of the solution, Vickie is facilitating prisons to bridge a stifling human resource gap and debunking societal stereotypes about prisoners. Society is incentivized to engage in the reformation of prisoners because they see it as a collective effort to ensure better lives for prisoners and safer communities for all.
Vickie’s approach has four main pillars: (i) development and implementation of the first entrepreneurship and basic education curriculum for prisons in Kenya (ii) resource development and mobilization to cover both the human and financial resource gaps that stifle the effectiveness of prisons (iii) streamline the capture, tracking and sharing of important quantitative and qualitative data related to prisons (iv) focus on dispelling stereotypes and stigma directed at prisoners in and out of prison. By focusing on these core strategies, Vickie is creating a supportive environment for prisoners to safely reintegrate into society and thrive without posing a threat to community safety.
Research studies around the world have shown the unmistakable link between unemployment, poverty, and crime, demonstrated by the tendency for these situations to coexist. This is the case in Kenya’s crowded urban informal settlements, home to the majority of Kenya’s poor and unemployed urban youth and also notorious locations for criminal activity. Young people are left with two choices: either take part in criminal activities or try to find legal but quite limited sources of income—if there are any available. Many choose the former option given that there are limited employment opportunities for Kenyan youth, who represent 75 percent of Kenya’s unemployed.
The tendency of young people to resort to crime to eke out a living means that the Kenyan prison system is flooded with new inmates at an estimated rate of 100,000 prisoners per year. While a portion of this number represents first time offenders and prisoners in remand, up to 50 percent are re-offenders. This high rate of recidivism is a sign of an ineffective criminal behavior change program within the justice system. The system is mandated to not only apprehend, convict, and imprison criminals but to also carry out effective rehabilitation, reformation, and reintegration programs to turn criminals away from high risk behavior. The inability to carry out this mandate poses a risk to societal safety, in addition to costing Kenya’s tax payers over US$200 million a year in financing a correctional service that does not work.
Overcrowding and an endemic lack of resources characterize the prison system in Kenya. Prisons are perceived—not only by society but also by prison staff—as a dumping site for the wayward. As such, there is prevalent stigma associated with prisoners and a lack of motivation by prison staff to rehabilitate prisoners. What’s more, there is little data to inform a well-coordinated prison strategy focused on behavior change. For example, data that would be vital to awarding reformed prisoners a certificate of good conduct upon their release in order to make it easier for them to find employment is not collected, tracked or shared. Accurate information, such as the number of prisoners in the system or data on the criminal history of inmates, is all but impossible to find. Thus, well-meaning interventions by the private sector, churches and other citizen organizations (COs) are limited in impact. Though organizations like Resources Oriented Development Initiatives in Kenya offer entrepreneurship training at the end of prisoners’ time, they do so without the benefit of referring to previous records on literacy levels, mental health, or emotional stability. This limits an organizations’ ability to develop an adequate pedagogy and curriculum to achieve lasting change for prisoners. The lack of a system to collect, track, and share data on prisoners fundamentally stifles the potential for collaboration and/or integration between agencies in the criminal justice system. Several private sector, public sector, and COs independently provide one-off services to prisons, including infrastructural improvements, business training, donated bedding, and spiritual guidance. However, they do so in silos and with little information flowing between agencies, making their efforts less efficient or impactful.
Vickie starts by addressing what she sees as the capacity gaps of the prison system to properly reform, rehabilitate, and reintegrate prisoners. Vickie sees that at the root of the problem is a lack of resources combined with an ethos that is not committed to rehabilitation. Among the most important resources lacking in the prisons is expertise to provide professional training, education and treatment services to prisoners. Despite the fact that the criminal justice system affects everyone in one way or another, little innovation or leadership has been demonstrated in this space. Prisoners, both justly and unjustly convicted, are perhaps the worst hit by the current state of affairs. The combination of poverty, a lack of education, pervasive stigma in and out of prison makes it especially difficult for ex-convicts to rebuild their lives; and economic opportunity is difficult to come by. The necessity to survive against a backdrop of such difficult circumstances has continued to trap most prisoners in a vicious cycle of crime and time in and out of prison.
For professional training, Vickie is building and engaging a network of professional volunteers to train and mentor prisoners on range of professional and business management skills. Her organization, Nafisika Trust, has developed the first prison entrepreneurship curriculum that is taught within prison walls for two months, three times a year, to increase the capacity of prisoners to create or access economic opportunities. For basic education, Vickie is tapping a socially conscious community of teachers to provide literacy and computer skills. For treatment, Vickie has engaged leading universities and created a program for students of psychology, counseling, and mental health, to intern within the prisons. By working with cases in the prisons, the students hone their practical skills and provide their much needed professional expertise for free.
It was clear to Vickie that professional skills, basic education, and treatment alone would not position prisoners for success in life after prison. Just as important was the question of stigma, which greatly marginalizes prisoners when they leave. Therefore, creating empathy for prisoners within society had to underlie her work. This can be seen in her largely volunteer-based approach involving professionals and university students; by creating opportunities for society to get involved in the rehabilitation of prisoners, they would shed their stereotypes. Other direct interventions aimed to bridge the gap, including prison “fun days,” which allow the community to go into prisons to interact and engage prisoners in community building and activities. Nafisika is pioneering TEDx for Prisons to further expose prisoners to what is happening in the world. This serves to inspire prisoners to follow their dreams by featuring ex-inmates who have succeeded in rebuilding their lives. Nafisika also engages companies about the role they can play in transforming the prison system; encouraging their employees to volunteer; and donating supplies through philanthropy programs. An employment center established by Nafisika provides prisoners with a soft landing at the end of their sentence to facilitate reintegration. Prisoners receive support, including office space and capital to launch new businesses, in addition to mentorship and guidance on how and where to access employment.
As Vickie built her organization, she faced great difficulty accessing data about the prison system. She quickly recognized the magnitude of this bottleneck, preventing systemic transformation from taking place. Therefore, she started the first individual profiling system for prisoners in Kenya. It is now possible to capture and share information across agencies, including prisoners’ criminal records, health backgrounds, and literacy levels, along with progress reports over time. With this data, prisons can provide prisoners with certificates of good conduct. Nafisika is also embarking on a research project to generate and make available important numerical data related to Kenya’s prisons for purposes of planning and program development by the government and other actors in the criminal justice system. The availability and free flow of accurate information about prisoners and the prison system between concerned agencies will go a long way to integrate and streamline currently isolated efforts.
Since Vickie started Nafisika in 2009, she has concentrated her efforts in six prisons in and around Nairobi where she has tested and refined her ideas. The result being, her curriculum has been adopted and fully integrated into some of the prisons where she has worked. Vickie has engaged leading universities who have independently formed partnerships with the prisons to run internship programs and train prison staff. 60 percent of the ex-inmates who have gone through her program are employed or started their own businesses. In recognition of Nafisika’s leadership in improving Kenya’s prisons capacity to reform prisoners, the government recently gave Vickie the license to operate and scale her model to all of Kenya’s 107 prisons. As she gears up to take her work national, Vickie has identified six regions across the country that have a concentration of universities she can leverage to access talent. Vickie is focused on working with medium term prisons because they are connected to maximum prisons and tend to have open minded and entrepreneurial leadership. Her experience has taught her that a lack of resources continues to stunt the progress and effectiveness of prisons. As such, she is looking to identify prisons with land that could be utilized for productive activity as part of the prisoners’ entrepreneurship training. The funds generated from such activities would partly fund the prison operations while contributing to a fund from which ex-prisoners could access start-up capital to launch their businesses. Ultimately, Vickie would like to see her work inform policy and guide the transformation of Kenya’s prison system toward one that is focused on reform, rehabilitation, and reintegration of prisoners. To this end, she looks to lead the creation of a consortium of organizations within the criminal justice system to advocate for policy reforms in the sector.
Although Vickie was born to a middle-class family of six she remembers her household never consisting of less than thirteen people at any given time. She attributes this to her mother, who she describes as an eccentric giver who spared nothing to help neighbors and extended family. Having picked up similar traits, Vickie grew into a socially conscious young woman who believed that one was only as rich as those around them. While in primary school, she noticed a deeply entrenched culture of classism that was at odds with the virtues of selflessness, community, and tolerance she was taught at home. To bridge the gap between the kids in school who were looked down on and the more popular ones, she being popular, befriended the marginalized kids. Thus, Vickie changed the school culture to one of inclusivity and equality.
At university in Kenya, Vickie went to Belgium with Interfaith Youth Core. While there, she founded a program to help bridge the gap between locals and foreigners in her community. When Vickie returned home on summer holiday to renew her visa, she saw a clip in the news about the condition of Kenyan prisons. She decided to go to a prison for the first time—a scary experience for most 21-year-old women—to find out if she could volunteer to paint the walls. When she got there, the place was already painted but something else was happening. In a small dark room, ten prisoners were in a class being instructed by another inmate. In a conversation with the prison staff, Vickie learned that their greatest need was scholastic materials. She excitedly took it upon herself to find the books and pens the prisoners needed. Vickie did this by soliciting donations from friends and family. She later learned the class needed teacher, an opportunity she couldn’t resist. Vickie volunteered to teach basic literacy skills, and after a few weeks, her class graduated. She was excited not only about the new relationships she had built but about her changed perception of prisons. Vickie thought she had helped the prisoners set themselves up for a better life upon release until she had a conversation with the brightest student in her class. This conversation changed the course of her life. When Vickie asked him what he would do after prison given his newly acquired skills, the young man told her that by becoming smarter, he would not be caught by the police when he returned to his former life. These words broke her heart and against intense resistance from family and friends, Vickie left school to focus on transforming Kenya’s prison system.