Jailed for crime she didn’t commit, this Kenyan banker cleared her name and now gives female ex-cons a clean start

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Teresa and some women at a summit in 2016

A prison is a place for reformation but usually, the prisoners let their immediate predicament get the better of them and they hardly become reformed.

Besides, the conditions in the cells, especially in African cells, are not conducive.

Upon their release, it is often hard for them to assimilate into society because of the stigma attached to serving jail-time even though there have been so many activists working hard to debunk this mentality for a while now.

For a young mother, prison is no place to raise a child. The burden to adjust to a new environment doubles as the mother now has to cater to a toddler, as well as, themselves in an environment where one is not at liberty to do as they please.

Theresa Njoroge had a successful career as a banker and mother in Nairobi, Kenya but all that went out the window when she was sentenced to a year in jail for theft and conspiracy to defraud in 2011.

“I was shown where I would sleep for the next one year; the metal food container; the door-less bathrooms. The only daylight came from small vents high up in the wall. There was no going outside without permission, and the stench…,” she was quoted by Standard Media.

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Teresa and her family

The difficult part for her was when she had to take her daughter with her because she had been born a few months prior to her sentencing.

She told Standard Media: “It was difficult not being able to give her the things I had so carefully prepared for – food, shelter, healthcare, toys…”

About seven months before she went to prison, Teresa had resigned from her previous bank because she had handled a fraudulent transaction unknowingly which was detected and investigated. She was cleared of the charges then, so she sought employment in another bank.

It was at her new banking hall that she saw officers approaching.

“She thought the officers were there to inform her that they had got to the bottom of the case, and the culprits had been found,” Daily Nation wrote in an interview with Teresa.

“Lang’ata Maximum Prison was a place I just couldn’t fathom ending up in or even figuring out how I was now living life as a convict, as a criminal. It was very difficult.

“I had some very dark days, questioning how I moved from the respected financial sector to now being behind bars at the largest correctional facility for women in Kenya. It was very difficult to handle,” she said.

Three months after she had thrown herself a pity party, she decided to look at the bright side of things. She realised the other women around were in worse situations than she was and some didn’t even get visitors as she did.

“I couldn’t believe it. What was I complaining about? I had enjoyed a good life full of wonderful opportunities yet here were women who had never tasted even a fraction of what I had. That was my awakening,” she said.

Teresa had a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Pune University in India but most of the women were illiterates. So, she started teaching them mathematics, how to save, invest and how to read and write.

She decided to look on the bright side of their incarceration and focus on how to blend in with society when they are released.

For her good behaviour, Teresa served only 9 months in prison but being free and being cleared of all charges didn’t mean everybody would accept one back into their lives as if nothing had happened.

Theresa Njoroge
Teresa’s Clean Start Program seeks to help women assimilate into society after prison

She was tagged and felt like an outcast. Many friends didn’t return her calls and she couldn’t land a job despite having years of experience in the bank.

“…being an ex-convict, I couldn’t find a job. The stigmatisation was real. By the time you are coming out, people have written you off. It is worse than the prison itself.”

Her new situation pushed her to be ingenious about her plight which was like many ex-convicts, especially women and girls who were once incarcerated. Even if one has been cleared of all charges or not, it didn’t make any difference to society.

Knowing that the lack of support for ‘people like her’ might get some of them back in jail, Teresa started Clean Start, a social enterprise that champions the rights of ex-convicts and trains them with practical skills.

“It is like the day you go to prison you will be a prisoner for the whole of your life. When you leave those gates, you enter a second prison. A prison where you can’t get a job, no one trusts you and you need to survive.”

According to Citizen Digital, Clean Start partners with Joss Carruthers and a team of 16 people to run the Spear Course in Kenyan prisons.

“The Spear Course aims to equip women and girls in prison with real skills they can use after prison to build a new life and create second chances.”

The program also trains everyone involved with the assimilation of ex-prisoners, including the officers and teachers who run the institutions, as well as, the corporate entities that could employ them.

Relatives and others are in society are not left out because it takes communal efforts to make life easy for ex-prisoners.

Support Me In My Shoes is another service programme Teresa runs for women in Kenyan prisons.

She said: “If I hadn’t walked in those shoes, I wouldn’t give a damn. But today, my greatest sense of achievement is seeing other lives changed.”

Teresa’s contributions to better the lives of women after prison with her Clean Start project has not gone unnoticed. In 2018, she was nominated for the Global thinkers Forum Award for Excellence in the African Female Leader category.

Speaking to Citizen Digital on her nomination, Teresa said, “I am very grateful to the Global Thinkers Forum for lifting us up and acknowledging the importance of the work we do.”

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