From Britain’s Colonial Gulag to Kenya’s Prison Pipeline

Was incarceration and mass detention in colonial Kenya about punishment and safety or labour and profit?

Why was the incarceration rate higher in Kenya than any other British colony in Central and Eastern Africa? Why did the British establish a system of detention camps and patrolled villages? From the get-go of colonial rule in 1985, jails were some of the first buildings the Brits constructed in Kenya. After only 16 years the Brits had erected 30 penitentiaries. Following 40 years of British control, they were locking up 145 out of every 100,000 Kenyans.

Florence Bernault, a Professor of African History at Sciences Po, reports that “by 1933, forced labour had become such a frequent sentence that the government began building prison camps entirely devoted to agricultural and public works.” This forced labour has had mortifying consequences.

Towards the apex of British rule, during the 1952–1960 Mau Mau uprisings, the British instituted a policy of mass detention. Historian, Caroline Elkins and her book the British Gulag chronicle how the British used a “pipeline” of detention camps and patrolled village to confine some 1.5 million Kenyans (men, women and children). The camps were used in order to quell the anticolonial uprising by trying to break the Kikuyus using torture and terror. In the camps, the Kikuyus endured torture, starvation, disease rape and murder. These colonial practices ultimately led to the institutionalisation of the same methods of imprisoning contemporary Kenyans.

It was a story of deliberate colonial violence and high-up whitewashing.

Kenyan Minister for Defence, Jake Cusack, in 1954 defined the use of Mau Mau detainee labour in the following way: “We are slave traders, and the employment of our slaves are, in this instance, by the Public Works Department.” Instead of building public houses, they built prisons for public work.

In 2018, the Kenyan government created the Kenya Prison Enterprise Corporation to “unlock” the “revenue potential” of prisoners, boosting the national prison-industrial complex .In our contemporary culture, we have become so accustomed to the existence of prisons that we consider them a requirement to “punish criminals” and keep them out of society. Yet, the Kenyan example makes clear how incarceration was not about punishment or reform; it was about exploiting labour at much cheaper costs than would otherwise be possible.

The Mau Mau period finally receives the attention it should, however, there’s little by academics on the post-colonial period. To continue to take a step in the right direction the true legacy of colonial prisons carried in the DNA of Kenya’s penal system and the impact of their loss on the ‘post-colonial’ period urgently reassessing.

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