Wanini Kireri is the Senior Assistant Commissioner General of Prisons in Kenya, a mother of one, a professional counsellor and an author of a book titled The Disruptor, which describes her journey through the Kenya Prisons Service.
Her journey in serving the inmates commenced in 1982 when she was enlisted into the Kenya Prisons Service as a cadet officer.
This marked the beginning pf her journey in the Kenya Prisons and her first posting was at Lang’ata Women’s Prison as a duty officer, but she was not ready for what awaited her.
Wanini Kireri and Fred Matiang'i. PHOTO/COURTESY
“It’s at Lang’ata Women’s Prison that I witnessed first-hand the deplorable conditions of prisons which the incarcerated women were facing, especially those who had been accompanied by their babies. Inadequate bedding, food, sanitary towels and dirty clothes was the norm in the prison. This was a culture shock.
“I was promoted and transferred to Embu women prison as the officer in charge. This was my opportunity to improve the lives of both inmates and the staff. I started by ensuring that high levels of hygiene were upheld within the accommodation areas. Then I got new uniforms for inmates and staff under my command, which boosted their morale.
Wanini Kireri. PHOTO/COURTESY
She served in Embu for eight years until 1993 when she got promoted to the rank of Superintendent of Prisons and then transferred to the Prisons College as a Senior Lecturer. Her duties were mainly training both serving officers and newly recruited trainees. She also served as the college adjutant.
“By the time I got a transfer to Nakuru Women prison as an officer in charge, there was a serious clamour for reforms in our prisons. Human rights organizations amongst other organizations were up in arms against the perceived torture behind the bars.”
Her creativity saw her pioneer the open-door policy, under the stewardship of the then Vice President Moody Awori, which opened up prisons to the “outside contact”.
“I welcomed partnerships from various organizations including churches who came on board and offered a helping hand to the prison by donating beds and sanitary towels. Some even constructed daycare centres for the children of the inmates.”
Wanini Kireri. PHOTO/COURTESY
She also championed for the provision of formal education to the inmates supported by well-wishers who provided stationery.
Wanini also introduced beauty pageants for the prisoners and a remote parenting program, a concept she borrowed from China while on a benchmarking tour.
“The program allows families especially children of the inmates to visit the prisons and spend a day with their loved ones. This program was later adopted by all prisons countrywide, not without challenges, but I realized that for the reforms to be implemented and for change to happen the status quo had to be disrupted.”
Wanini Kireri. PHOTO/COURTESY
In 2006, she was transferred to Mombasa’s Shimo La Tewa Maximum Prison, a male-only prisoners’ institution, as its first female officer in charge of the prison.
“I subsequently implemented the reforms and in 2017, I was promoted to the Regional Commander of Nairobi in charge of supervising all the prisons in the Nairobi region. Still, I pushed the wheel of reforms and started recreational activities like sports for the inmates within Nairobi region; launching the famous ‘World cup behind bars’.”
She promoted creativity and nurtured talents behind bars by introducing dancing and drama competitions which saw some inmates become professional entertainers on being released.
“Moreover, I teamed up with the Presbyterian Church who offered a Diploma course in theological studies for both inmates and staff. In addition, through faith-based organizations, male inmates were taken through transformational programs, like Man Enough, Man of Honour, Mizizi, just to name but a few.”
Moody Awori and Wanini Kireri. PHOTO/COURTESY
After a study tour in Sweden, she adopted some programs in Kenyan prisons including The Monastic retreat; a holistic- wellness program, and the child-friendly visits that reconnect families.
“Currently, I serve as the Commandant of the Ruiru Prisons Staff Training College since 2018, the first female to hold this position in Kenya. Looking back through my journey of about 40 years, my proudest moments include witnessing the prisons adopt reform programs that I introduced, getting testimonies from former inmates who have reformed as a result of these programs, and being honoured nationally and internationally.”
Wanini is the epitone of hard work and determination as she counts her blessings.
“To realize such achievements has been a journey of patience, self-awareness and being innovative. Yes! I do count myself lucky to have received such accolades over the years that I have served in the Kenya Prisons Service.”
William Ruto and Wanini Kireri. PHOTO/COURTESY
Some of the national and global awards and recognitions she has bagged include:
• Elder of The Spear (EBS) 2020
• (ICPA) Outstanding Correctional Service Employee Award- 2019
• Recipient of The Crime Si Poa Life Time Achievement Award 2019
• Public Servant of The Year Award (PSOYA) 2015
• Heroes Award 2014
• Recognized on Women’s Day 2014
• Recipient of The She Tribute Award for her Outstanding Achievements and Contribution to People-Family TV
• Prisons Officers Award for The Best Managed Institution Recognized by The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights 2007-2009
• Recognized as a Change Agent in Kenya -2009
• Reach out Center for Trust for Drugs & Rehabilitation for successfully facilitating service to Humanity
• Special Recognition Award -Eve Woman of The Year Award- 2008
• Impact Award by Word of Life International for being a role model to the youth.
• Xtreeme Teeneez -Life Time achievement Award
• Order of The Golden Warrior (OGW) 2005.
She has made it her passion to mentor the younger women in the prisons service.
“I have deliberately been a mentor to them. I would love to see more of them holding such positions and getting recognized globally as well, even though it comes with challenges tagged on the African patriarchal perspective.”
She normally shares these critical pieces of advice with young female officers:
• The glass ceiling has been broken and women are out here reclaiming their position. Everything is possible with determination, and through hard work, your presence will be felt. It only calls for you to be courageous. Identify opportunities and embrace change as it unleashes your full potential.
• No matter how high you climb the career ladder, remain humble. Being a leader does not stop you from interacting with fellow officers or even junior ones and encouraging them. Leadership by example will break the barriers between you and your officers.
• When you have a chance, uplift someone else. Learn to identify others’ potential and encourage them through teamwork while branding themselves to disrupt the status quo as it is no longer business as usual.
She has faced numerous major hurdles in her journey to climb the career ladder.
“In the early 80s and partially early 90s, the vacancies for women in terms of promotion were very few compared to men. There were also delays in promotion for female officers. But thanks to the affirmative action, the Prisons reforms and the current Kenya constitution that provides for gender mainstreaming and equal opportunities, things have improved.
“To overcome challenges, I have first anchored myself in God through prayer. I also have some key guiding principles; hard work, patience, confidence, being courageous, firm and fair at work. It is also important to know your strengths, set new limits and respect those you work with even as you set a clear vision. Lastly being authentic is also a major principle that has worked for me.”
She has authored a book titled “The Disruptor” and she is on the verge of launching a second one. She spoke on what both books are about and what inspired her to write them.
“My book “The Disruptor” is my autobiography. It simply tells my story and describes my journey through the Kenya Prisons Service. I was inspired to write it because I took part in the initial years when prisons were experiencing serious clamour for reforms. Most of my peer and stakeholders frequently asked about my experience in the prisons reform and this led to the birth of the book.
“My second book “Comprehensively” talks of my leadership journey and styles. This was inspired by the virtue that, I believe have been successful in achieving my potential. Also, having read widely on rehabilitation, most of my reads are inclined to other countries or setups, hence the need for one tailor-make for local institutions and for our country, that people can relate with including young Kenyan leaders.”
In her vision to reform the prisons further, she proposes these three things:
1. Remote parenting. We experienced and are still seeing its impact on our rehabilitation. I feel there is need for it to be incorporated and embedded in the Kenya prisons framework and embraced within the system.
2. Enhance prisons rehabilitation programs to suit the current trends. Embrace new concepts by having sections dealing with, for instance, treatment plan and remedial for both inmates and staff.
3. Improvement of technological infrastructure in prisons through proper funding and partnerships. Prisons are still behind in technology in this fast-moving world.
So, how does she describe herself and how do others perceive her?
“Confident and courageous; I am never afraid as long as I am doing the right thing. I am also one person who takes every failure as a stepping stone for improvement. I am God-fearing and always open to feedback.”
She had this last piece of advice for the women eyeing the top management positions.
“Brand yourselves and rise above any limits you have. Once you have carved out your niche claim your space, work toward realizing your potential and opportunities will avail themselves and when they do, grab and exploit them.”
Interviews by Patience Nyange & Esther Kiragu