When I heard those bars slam hard, I knew it was for real. I feel confused. I feel betrayed. I feel overwhelmed. I feel silenced.
What just happened? How could they send me here? I don't belong here. How could they make such a huge mistake without any repercussions whatsoever to their actions? I see large groups of women in tattered uniforms surrounded by huge walls and gates, enclosed by iron barbed wires, and I get hit by an awful stench, and I ask myself, how did I move from working in the respected financial banking sector, having worked so hard in school, to now being locked up in the largest correctional facility for women in Kenya?
My first night at Langata Women Maximum Security Prison was the toughest. In January of 2009, I was informed that I had handled a fraudulent transaction unknowingly at the bank where I worked. I was shocked, scared and terrified. I would lose a career that I loved passionately. But that was not the worst. It got even worse than I could have ever imagined. I got arrested, maliciously charged and prosecuted. The absurdity of it all was the arresting officer asking me to pay him 10,000 US dollars and the case would disappear. I refused. Two and a half years on, in and out of courts, fighting to prove my innocence. It was all over the media, in the newspapers, TV, radio. They came to me again. This time around, said to me, "If you give us 50,000 US dollars, the judgement will be in your favor," irrespective of the fact that there was no evidence whatsoever that I had any wrongdoing on the charges that I was up against.
I remember the events of my conviction six years ago as if it were yesterday. The cold, hard face of the judge as she pronounced my sentence on a cold Thursday morning for a crime that I hadn't committed. I remember holding my three-month-old beautiful daughter whom I had just named Oma, which in my dialect means "truth and justice," as that was what I had longed so much for all this time. I dressed her in her favorite purple dress, and here she was, about to accompany me to serve this one-year sentence behind bars.
The guards did not seem sensitive to the trauma that this experience was causing me. My dignity and humanity disappeared with the admission process. It involved me being searched for contrabands, changed from my ordinary clothes to the prison uniform, forced to squat on the ground, a posture that I soon came to learn would form the routine of the thousands of searches, number counts, that lay ahead of me.
The women told me, "You'll adjust to this place. You'll fit right in." I was no longer referred to as Teresa Njoroge. The number 415/11 was my new identity, and I soon learned that was the case with the other women who we were sharing this space with.
And adjust I did to life on the inside: the prison food, the prison language, the prison life. Prison is certainly no fairytale world.
What I didn't see come my way was the women and children whom we served time and shared space with, women who had been imprisoned for crimes of the system, the corruption that requires a fall guy, a scapegoat, so that the person who is responsible could go free, a broken system that routinely vilifies the vulnerable, the poorest amongst us, people who cannot afford to pay bail or bribes.
And so we moved on. As I listened to story after story of these close to 700 women during that one year in prison, I soon realized that crime was not what had brought these women to prison, most of them, far from it. It had started with the education system, whose supply and quality is not equal for all; lack of economic opportunities that pushes these women to petty survival crimes; the health system, social justice system, the criminal justice system. If any of these women, who were mostly from poor backgrounds, fall through the cracks in the already broken system, the bottom of that chasm is a prison, period.
By the time I completed my one-year sentence at Langata Women Maximum Prison, I had a burning conviction to be part of the transformation to resolve the injustices that I had witnessed of women and girls who were caught up in a revolving door of a life in and out of prison due to poverty.
After my release, I set up Clean Start. Clean Start is a social enterprise that seeks to give these women and girls a second chance. What we do is we build bridges for them. We go into the prisons, train them, give them skills, tools and support to enable them to be able to change their mindsets, their behaviors and their attitudes. We also build bridges into the prisons from the corporate sector—individuals, organizations that will partner with Clean Start to enable us to provide employment, places to call home, jobs, vocational training, for these women, girls, boys and men, upon transition back into society.
I never thought that one day I would be giving stories of the injustices that are so common within the criminal justice system, but here I am. Every time I go back to prison, I feel a little at home, but it is the daunting work to achieve the vision that keeps me awake at night, connecting the miles to Louisiana, which is deemed as the incarceration capital of the world, carrying with me stories of hundreds of women whom I have met within the prisons, some of whom are now embracing their second chances, and others who are still on that bridge of life's journey.
I embody a line from the great Maya Angelou. "I come as one, but I stand as 10,000."
For my story is singular, but imagine with me the millions of people in prisons today, yearning for freedom.
Three years post my conviction and two years post my release, I got cleared by the courts of appeal of any wrongdoing.
Around the same time, I got blessed with my son, whom I named Uhuru, which in my dialect means "freedom."
Because I had finally gotten the freedom that I so longed for. I come as one, but I stand as 10,000, encouraged by the hard-edged hope that thousands of us have come together to reform and transform the criminal justice system, encouraged that we are doing our jobs as we are meant to do them. And let us keep doing them with no apology.