Going into Uganda’s prisons: a journey in two parts

Author: | 29 Aug 2023

In July, two of our scholars went to Uganda on a travelling scholarship, funded by the Henry Oldfield Trust, to spend the month working alongside the charity Justice Defenders in the country’s jails. Here Victoria, one of the two, reflects on what was for her a transformative journey. The good things that happen in Uganda’s prisons, she argues, set a good example to the UK

When I embarked on a journey to Uganda on a Longford Trust travelling scholarship, and was hosted there by Justice Defenders, little did I know that this adventure would challenge my perceptions, reshape my perspectives, and leave an indelible mark on my life. For six long years, I had vowed to never step foot inside a prison again, scarred by the wasted time of my previous incarceration. However, fate had other plans as I found myself breaking that vow and venturing into nine different prisons within just three weeks, this time not as an inmate, but as a visitor and advocate.

My Ugandan experience began in the vibrant city of Kampala, where I was immediately captivated by the beauty of the land. The lush forests, diverse trees, and bountiful crops painted a vivid picture of nature’s abundance. However, beneath this beauty lay a complex reality – the livelihoods of many Ugandans depend on agriculture and self-employment, leading to a cycle of imprisonment due to petty crimes.

The journey commenced with visits to three prisons in Kampala – the Luzira female institute and two male prisons. Here, I was introduced to the coloured labels that defined sentences within Ugandan institutions: yellow for remand and short sentences, orange for longer terms, and white for those with death sentences. Inside the female institute, I met incredible women, and their children, each wearing their sentences with resilience. They were part of Justice Defenders, a group empowering individual prisoners who lacked financial means with legal knowledge so as to represent themselves in court.

Helen and Grace, two of these remarkable women, had transformed themselves into paralegals after receiving training from Justice Defenders. Helen’s words resonated deeply: “Courts can be frightening… Uganda v Helen, and it’s mind-blowing, the whole country against me. I hated prosecution when I was in court, but studying law has made me realise they are just exercising their jobs.”

The empowerment these women gained through legal education was not just about personal transformation; it was about helping their fellow inmates and advocating for justice. As I conversed with these women, their compassion, resilience, and commitment to change were palpable. They were eager to learn about the UK’s Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) and Extended Determinate Sentences (EDS) system, expressing concern and curiosity about its implementation. Their thirst for knowledge was fuelled by their desire to transform not only themselves but their communities as well.

Heading into a male prison in Kampala, the atmosphere felt different. The men were serious, contemplative, and structured. With a focus on helping newcomers navigate the legal system, the male paralegals embraced their roles as “fellow members of Justice Defenders”. Their dedication to legal education and rehabilitation was awe-inspiring. The emphasis on knowledge, articulated with seriousness and conviction, showcased the transformational power of education and purpose.

‘For six years, I had vowed to never step foot inside a prison again. However, I found myself breaking that vow and venturing into nine different prisons within just three weeks’

When my journey moved on to the mid-central Mubende region in Uganda, there was a shift in focus from the city’s prisons to a wider community engagement. Justice Defenders extended its reach beyond prison walls, working to reintegrate released individuals back into society. In many communities, acceptance of ex-convicts was a challenge, leading Justice Defenders to conduct community awareness sessions and radio talk shows, collaborating with legal professionals and community leaders to foster understanding and second chances.

The establishments in Mubende were largely farm prisons, emphasising rehabilitation through agricultural activities. Paralegals played a crucial role due to limited staff, and officers often collaborated closely with inmates to foster personal growth and skills development. The dedication and training of staff within Uganda’s prisons stood out as a remarkable difference from other systems. The emphasis on rehabilitation and transformation was evident, reflecting the belief that every citizen has a role to play in prison reform.

During a visit to the crown court in Mubende, the dynamics of Uganda’s legal system unfolded before my eyes. Plea bargaining took centre stage, with many men choosing to plead guilty to avoid lengthy trials or higher court proceedings. Sentencing in Uganda diverged from what I am accustomed to, and the absence of a formal criminal record system intrigued me. This unique approach sought to reintegrate individuals seamlessly into society after their release.

One profound experience in Mubende was witnessing a prison governor advocating for inmates in court. This personal touch emphasised rehabilitation and the belief in second chances, fostering a sense of hope among the inmates. The stories of individuals like Paul, who had endured years of imprisonment due to injustice, revealed the strength of human spirit and the power of advocacy in the face of adversity.

‘a common thread emerged – the transformative power of education and empowerment’

Throughout my journey, a common thread emerged – the transformative power of education and empowerment. Inmates turned paralegals were not defined by their pasts; they were defined by their newfound purpose, knowledge, and commitment to change. Their dedication to legal education and their communities was inspiring, reminding me of the importance of viewing individuals beyond their mistakes.

As I reflect on my time in Uganda, gratitude fills my heart. The opportunity to learn, connect, and witness the dedication of both inmates and advocates was a gift beyond measure. The experience left an indelible mark on me, shaping my understanding of justice, rehabilitation, and the potential for transformation. My journey with the Longford Trust and Justice Defenders was not just a visit; it was a transformative voyage that redefined my perspective and enriched my life.

Want to know more about our travelling scholars and their trip in July 2023 to Uganda.  Read more here.