What Uganda’s prisons can teach us

Author: | 22 Aug 2023

In July, two of our current Longford Scholars were awarded travelling scholarships by the Longford Trust so they could spend a month in Uganda working in its prison system with the charity, Justice Defenders.  One of them compares what he saw there with what he had experienced in a UK jail – for better and for worse.

Asanta Sana and welcome to my blog about the recent trip I made to Uganda to work with the NGO Justice Defenders. I learnt this chant as I went into Luziro Men’s Prison in the capital, Kampala. It is a sign of appreciation and greets you in the most respectful way. I heard it in all 12 of the prisons I visited during my time there, both in the city and in the rural areas. To say I was nervous stepping into an African prison is an understatement, but that chant made me feel at ease.

I kept asking myself was how on earth had I ended up in a Ugandan prison? Luckily this time I wasn’t getting banged up at roll call. Instead, I was exchanging my experiences of prison in the UK with prisoners there, and learning from the Justice Defenders. It had been a big step for me applying for Longford Trust’s travelling scholarship (supported by the Henry Oldfield Trust) to go to Uganda. I had only been released 18 months earlier and I hadn’t been abroad for 16 years. But like always, the team at the trust reassured me that I would be in safe hands and have my eyes open to international justice. They weren’t wrong…

“Welcome to the Pearl of Africa” read the sign as I landed in Uganda. The humidity was stifling and the insects gave me a warm welcome by defeating my repellent. The boda boda’s were ready.

Driving to Kampala from the airport had me in awe. The scenery was amazing, a 10-storey mansion adjacent to a tin-shack, both surrounded by the greenest of gardens. The closer I got to the city centre, the busier the streets became.  Downtown Kampala is a hive of activity. I could have done my shopping for my whole four-week stay within the first five minutes of arriving there without even leaving the car. Freshly-picked fruits, cleverly balanced on top of heads, plastic containers, and even a set of car window wipers were just a few of the items available if I had wound down the window. This new way of life was going to take a bit of getting used to.

Slowly adjusting to my new surroundings, it was time to meet the Justice Defenders. I arrived at their office, a lovely house transformed into a well-structured workspace with a spacious back garden. The team introduced themselves and gave me the warmest of welcomes. Soon I was on the road again, this time to Luziro Women’s Prison. The prison staff made us feel comfortable and introduced us to the Officer in Charge (OC).

Listening to her talk about the women in her care was touching, her passion and humanity moving. I asked about violence and self-harm, as this is a major problem we face in the UK prison system, but in reply learnt that the OC hadn’t broken up a fight or reported an incident of self-harm since she started running the prison. And she had been there for many years, it is worth noting.

At first it seemed hard to believe, but as soon as we started walking around the grounds any doubt I had was gone. The women were calm, interactive and looked out for one another. The epitome of this came when we met the paralegals among the prisoners. The Justice Defenders’ model is to equip those inside with law- and legal-research skills so that they can use them to represent their fellow inmates.

These trained paralegals do this in the Justice Defenders office, a large portakabin located in the centre of the prison. They have internet access, up-to-date laptops and a library of law books. Each morning, the paralegals open their surgery and interview fellow prisoners. They are trained to look for unfair practice, misapplication of the law and mitigating circumstances. When they identify any of these, they will advocate on behalf of the inmate. Watching them in action was astounding for me. We have similar mentoring going on in UK prisons but there always seemed, to me anyway, a power imbalance where inmates often disliked being told what to do by a fellow inmate. Yet this model was replicated in all of the prisons I visited. After a bit of thought, I put it down to the Justice Defenders.

In Uganda, legal aid is not a thing. Therefore, if you have no money, the only way, to get help with your case is through taking advice from a prisoner-paralegal.

It explains why the Justice Defenders are heralded as “gods” within the Ugandan prison system. In visit, the inmates and staff would perform poems and sing music all in praise of Justice Defenders. I felt lucky to be a part of a team that had such a powerful impact on people’s lives.

I found it difficult delivering sessions to those in the prisons on stress management since those listening to me seemed super chilled and happy. However, once I had gained the trust of the prisoners, they opened up and spoke about how the cramped conditions often left them feeling stressed and claustrophobic.

Seeing the way they had to live, and hearing the accounts of how tough that was, made me feel very emotional. Most of the prisons are overcrowded, and the small living space available had almost ten times the optimal capacity housed there. It was a sight for sore eyes. How do you remain hopeful and energetic in such conditions, I asked the guys. They simply answered, “we have each other, and we get some nice food”.

Such a positive attitude made the conditions easier to bear. Some in the men’s prisons referred to the OC as “Father”, testament to the way they are looked after. It really felt like a family unit in most of the prisons.

So, what have I brought back from visiting prisons and the courts in Uganda? Gratitude for the UK legal aid system for one thing. Having access to legal representation, regardless of income, is vital in a fair justice system. My biggest conundrum is wondering how our system is so violent and rates of self-harm are so high when, in a system in Uganda with such challenging conditions, there are no such problems. I still haven’t come up with an answer, but I am working on it.

On a personal level, I am following the Ugandan tradition of being appreciative for the good things I have in my life. And I am more committed than ever to prison reform as well as truly grateful for the opportunity made possible by the Longford Trust, the Henry Oldfield Trust and Justice Defenders.

More details of our travelling scholarships as part of our employability programme