Colonize and punish

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Colonize and punish

European colonizers used prisons and police as ways of controlling citizens. Patrick Gathara writes about the situation left in Kenya.


Riot police hit protesters in a demonstration against lawmakers’ asking for higher salaries in Nairobi in May 2013. THOMAS MUKOYA/REUTERS/ ALAMY

Prisons were some of the first buildings the British built when they colonized. They arrived in Kenya in 1895 and in 16 years they built 30 prisons, and with most days over 1,500 prisoners. In the next 20 years the numbers of prisons and prisoners more than doubled. By the start of the Second World War, Kenya was sending to prison a bigger proportion of its population than other British colonies in East and Central Africa. Colonial prisons were, and mostly still are, places of brutality. Kenyan prisons today have not really changed. They are brutal and, with the police and military, aim to scare society into following the state.

The ‘Pipeline’ is the system the colonial state used to deal with protesters. Making prisons and detention camps part of ‘Pipeline’ led to humiliation and torture as part of the system. Sadly, since independence, the prison system is now worse.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission says prisons today are overcrowded, give prisoners a poor diet, clothing, and bedding, there is not enough clean water, there is poor sanitation, and there are infectious diseases. There is also forced labour. The Attorney General describes forced labour as part of a prison sentence. Kenyan courts say that it is not against fundamental rights for the prison service not to give prisoners basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper.

This is very different from how things were before the British took power. The idea of mass imprisonment was new at the time of colonization in Kenya. Before colonization justice systems helped the victims and did not focus on the criminals. Legal professor Jeremy Sarkin says the aim was compensation and not imprisonment. Detention before a trial was usual in Africa. Only some centralized states, such as the West African kingdom of Dahomey, had permanent prisons. These were for people waiting for a trial or sentencing, not for punishment.

In indigenous systems, there were corporal and capital punishments but they were for the worst crimes of violence. Colonial prisons combined these punishments for even the smallest crimes. In fact, Africans did not even need to break the law to go to prison. White settlers would work with colonial authorities to imprison workers they thought were lazy for up to six months with hard labour.

But no one was really against the introduction of prisons, perhaps because, at first, they were badly organized and poorly funded. Some prisoners were free to come and go as they wanted. But this perhaps made not much difference as life outside the prison, under colonial rule, was more and more like life inside prison.

When the police arrive

Policing organizations started at least 5,000 years ago, but they looked very different from the police we know today. In the area today we know Kenya, and in most of Africa, there were none.

This does not mean that there was no violence or that societies did not have rules but they did not need police. Florence Gaub and Alex Walsh write, ‘The community organized social discipline informally. In fact, even today close communities only use the police when they cannot find a solution themselves.’

The East Africa Trading Company, later the Imperial British East Africa Company, started an armed security force in 1896. This was to protect its trading routes, trading centres, stocks, and staff, especially the building of a railway to Uganda. This force was then the Kenya Police in 1906, with staff from India and with Indian laws. It was only there to organize the natives and make colonial looting possible.

The police were OK with the looting from the start, and corruption was usual. Hugh Cholmondeley, a leader of the British settlers, talked about the relations between the public and police in 1907, ‘Very often, I heard a native say that an Indian policeman stopped them. When I asked them how they got away, they always said, “Oh, I gave him something”.’

People have tried to change things but the Kenya police is still there to keep the power inherited from the British. In 2009 a report from the National Task Force on Police Reforms, at the time of independence in 1963, said Kenya ‘had the same police, the same police organization, and many of the same police officers. This meant that supporting the government in power would continue after independence.’

Corruption and brutality continue now. The police murdered 803 people between 2013 and 2016. During April and May 2020, the police killed 15 people and seriously injured over 30 across the country. They said they were enforcing a curfew to stop the spread of Covid-19.


British soldiers examine a cyclist’s papers at gunpoint in Nairobi, 1953, during the Mau Mau Uprising. RON HARVEY/EVERETT COLLECTION HISTORICAL/ ALAMY

The beginnings of British police

‘Charles Jeffries was Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Colonies until 1956. He wrote, ‘Modern police history begins not in Britain, but in Ireland,’ Britain’s first colony. Until the 1930s, in Ireland (and then Northern Ireland) there was training for colonial police officers and in the 1920s, they sent many of its officers around the world to places such as India and Palestine.

Across all its colonies, when Britain saw a challenge to its power, it used more and more violent methods against the people it colonized.

The Mau Mau uprising really changed Kenya’s brutal prison system. The British put hundreds of thousands of people in detention camps and militarized villages. They tortured thousands of people and the British state tried to hide it. People began to see prison as a place of torture and social death. The lessons from the brutal treatment of Kenyans and others in British colonies found their way back to Britain, where they used it against working class and racialized communities..

In Kenya, and much of the colonized world, police and prisons are still mostly just as the Europeans created and ran them. They are still for punishment and control and to protect the interests of a small but powerful elite and not for justice. They serve not the people but the rulers.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)