Celebrating Wanini Kireri: The First Woman Commandant of Prisons Who Introduced Beauty Pageants, Formal Education In Correctional Facilities

By Prudence Minayo

For decades, prisons were shrouded in mystery with inmates subjected to inhuman conditions. Enter Margaret Wanini Kireri, a woman who drove the wheel of reformation in Kenya Prisons. She lobbied for better conditions for inmates and is credited with the introduction of open days, computer classes, media visits, beauty pageants, drama, music, games and prayer programs. She also fought for the introduction of formal education for prisoners and was assisted by various donors to sponsor the program.

Wanini’s wind of change spread across various prisons and her dedication and hard work was recognized internationally and nationally. She authored books with her first publication being called Disruptor.  The trailblazer passed away on 31 May 2022 while undergoing treatment at AAR Hospital.

Here is her story as told by WoK


She was enlisted in the Kenyan Prisons Service as a cadet officer in 1982. Her very first post was at Lang’ata Women’s Prison where she would receive a huge shock. The living conditions of the incarcerated women was deplorable. 

“It’s at Lang’ata Women Prisons 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 beddings, food, sanitary towels and dirty clothes were the norm in prison. This was a culture shock for me, and my heart sank,” she told the media.

In 1986, she was transferred to Embu Women Prison as the officer in charge. It was here that her dedication towards improving the lives of prisoners and prison staff shone through. She ensured hygienic conditions were maintained in living quarters and got new uniforms for both the staff and inmates. 

In 1993, Wanini Kireri became a superintendent of prisons and became a senior lecturer at the Prisons College. 

She was transferred to Nakuru Women Prison as an officer in charge. By this time, people were advocating for the improvement of incarcerated prisoners in Kenya.

Under the leadership of former Vice President Moody Awori, she Pioneered the open day policy. This opened up prisons to the outside world, enabling well wishers and churches to visit prisoners and donate sanitary towels, beddings and other personal hygiene products. They also established day cares for inmates with children.

During this time, she also lobbied for the introduction of formal education and introduced various programs including beauty pageants. She introduced parenting programs which allowed families to visit relatives in prisons and spend a day with them.

In 2006, Wanini Kireri was moved to Shimo La Tewa prison as the first ever female to head a male only prison. Four years later in 2010, she was made Provisional Prisoners Commander of Nairobi, currently called Regional Prisoners Commander. Here, she continued to push for reforms and introduced sports in prisons around Nairobi leading to the launch of World Cup Behind Bars. 

In 2017, she moved from the Nairobi Region to Prisons Headquarters as the Director, Legal Section. She introduced drama and club competitions so as to nurture the talents of inmates. 

She went on to hold the position of commandant of the Ruiru Prisons Staff Training College, becoming the first female to hold this position. 

Awards and Recognitions

Some of her awards and recognitions include:.

  • Receiving the She Tribute Award for her Outstanding Achievements and Contribution to People-Family TV 2004 
  • Impact Award by Word of Life International in 2008 for being a role model to the youth
  • Recognition as a Change Agent in Kenya in 2009
  • Prisons Officers Award for the Best Managed Institution Recognized by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights 2007-2009
  • Special Recognition on Women’s Day 2014
  • Heroes Award 2014
  • Public Servant of the Year Award 2015 
  • Received The Crime Si Poa LifeTime Achievement Award 2019 
  • (ICPA) Outstanding Correctional Service Employee Award 2019
  • Elder of the Burning Spear 2020