Joseph Mwangi and his teenage friends are terrified of being arrested by the police. Their crime: being homeless on the streets of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Mostly they are picked up in ones and twos, but occasionally, there is a full-scale swoop. When news of a swoop starts to circulate, Joseph and his group go into hiding. They know what awaits them if they are caught and charged with vagrancy.
So far, Joseph has spent only one period in detention, but he says it was the worst experience of his life. Last year, he was sent to the capital's notorious Industrial Area Remand Prison pending investigation of his case. By the time he was released 2-1/2 months later, he had suffered serious mental and physical abuse.
It is not rare for juveniles to be sent to adult remand prisons in Kenya. During their time in detention, Joseph says he and the three other boys with him - all in their early teens - were regularly beaten by the other inmates. The cells were so overcrowded, they had to sleep on a latrine floor covered in human waste.
"In the remand prison, the adults steal rations from the younger ones," Joseph says, seated under a tree in Uhuru Park in central Nairobi. "Adults rape the younger ones, and if you refuse, you're beaten."
Joseph belongs to a group of more than 30 street kids known as the Cathedral Children. Each lunchtime, they gather in the park in front of All Saints' Cathedral, where the Anglican pastors give them their only solid meal of the day.
There are more than 10,000 street children in Nairobi alone. Most of them seem to come from poor, single-parent families. However, it is not just economic factors that push them onto the streets. The Cathedral Children, who mostly belong to the majority Kikuyu community, became homeless in 1992 after clashes in central Kenya between their people and warriors from President Daniel arap Moi's Kalenjin tribe.
Last September, soon after Joseph was released from prison, he witnessed his best friend, Kajunia, being shot dead by a police reservist in Uhuru Park.
"The afande just fired his gun straight at Kajunia," says Mwangi, using the Swahili term of respect for a policeman. "He fell down in the water with his hands still raised in surrender. Then the afande spat on him and walked away. I was also beaten but I managed to escape. The afande is still around. He still comes after us and tries to beat us."
Joseph's testimony will feature in a forthcoming report on Kenya's street children by the New York-based human rights organization Human Rights Watch.
"The police seem to think that all street children are thieves," says Elizabeth Oyugi of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN). "The children don't stand a chance; they're condemned from the start. Most of them complain of having been beaten by the police."
ANPPCAN estimates that as many as 120 street children appear before Nairobi's Juvenile Court each week. For boys, the charge is usually vagrancy; for girls, loitering with intent. Children who plead "not guilty" are remanded into custody.
"In court they're treated like criminals," says Mrs. Oyugi. "The justice system is extremely intimidating. Children of 16 or even younger are being sent to the Industrial Area Remand Prison, which is for adults. The conditions there are appalling, mainly because of overcrowding and inadequate rations."
According to recent estimates, as many as five people a day are dying of disease in the Industrial Area Remand Prison. When questioned about conditions in Kenyan prisons, the former Home Affairs Minister, Francis Lotodo, replies: "A prison is not a hotel."
It is only through the reports of former inmates like Joseph Mwangi that it is possible to get information on Kenya's prison conditions. Human rights organizations, journalists, and lawyers have been refused free access to the prisons.