Other people’s problems

Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons in the US today. I got exercised by it, and the memory of the circumstances around the death of Kalief Browder.

Then I remembered a BBC documentary about the conditions of people in Kenyan prisons (hear it here) that made it quite clear that poor people easily rot away in prison. This in a country where one easily dies even in remand because cases drag through the courts for so long. Remand, a place where your case has not been decided yet. Read this and weep.

Browder wasn’t an adult when he was put in jail. If you read the New Yorker piece that highlighted his experience, you see why things happened as they did. He was tortured, his spirit was broken; that he lived after he was released, that he had moments resembling joy…when you imagine what was taken away from him. His liberty, his life, time and dignity. He wasn’t 23 when he died and this strikes me and saddens me every time I think of it, and especially now as Birthday Week goes on.

Yet it’s easy to think of these things as American issues; those people are so messed up, right? Uhmm, no. It’s not just tough for adults in Kenyan prisons, it’s dangerous for minors. When you realise that there are children who plead guilty to avoid going back to remand, it hits you that even lining up for a fair trial can be a horrible experience. They have no family, no representation, no care when they go before the law. The law, in turn, is set up to take care of children, but its execution is usually merciless.

These are not American issues; we live in a carceral state too. We live in a nation where to be poor is to walk around with the real risk of being arrested and your life wasting away in prison. If you have no representation, no aid, then you’re practically doomed.

I had a short period of spending time in the Quaker meeting house on Ngong Road. One of the things that drew me to Quakerism was their work in prison reform and today’s announcement from Obama reminded me of this. This is something that scares me; the thought that young people who end up on the wrong side of the law and are poor may see their life disappear for that very reason.

The story of Kalief Browder breaks my heart. This is a small reminder (even if just to myself) that the story of Browder is the story of Kenyan children, of Kenya’s incarcerated, of so many of the world’s people. A reminder to work for a more just world.


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