How is the Uganda Prisons Service going?
Well, we are managing, the situation is normal. We now have 238 prison units, our holding capacity is 19,000 but the number is increasing to 41,000. That is a major challenge but we are recruiting more 1000 staff, currently we have 6700 and we hope this will fill the understaffing challenge since the international prisoner to warder ratio is 1:3 and ours is 1:7, this will push down it down to 1:6. Renovations are ongoing in Gulu, Mbarara, Bushenyi, Kabarole and Moroto districts. This will help with congestion though the rate of population increase is faster than our efforts. We also hope for a bumper harvest in our prison farms, which can feed our prisoners for the next four months.
A capacity of 19,000 and you have over 40,000 inmates is almost unimaginable, how grave is this congestion problem?
Very grave! From the sanitation side, we are still using the soil bucket system since there are no water borne systems in all the wards yet, so people ease themselves and take the excreta out. We are moving to Ecosan toilets which don’t need water and separates the urine from fecal matter without leaving a stench. The bucket system is still used in 40 units, down from 174 but that’s still terrible, it is an abuse of human rights and crude but we are doing everything possible. Contagious diseases such as Tuberculosis also spread fast in the cells because of this congestion.
The budget was recently passed and your boss, the Commissioner General of Prisons was in haggling with Mps for more allocation. How did it end?
We were given shs93b yet we need shs250b to effectively do our work but this is our country, we cannot run away from these budgetary challenges but see how best to survive. With this state of affairs, you can see that congestion is not about to go. You notice that we have 17,000 convicts, the rest (out of 40,000) are on remand and this is abnormal since these on remand are more of consumers than producers to us.
The process of transforming prisons from punitive to correctional facilities has been ongoing for some time now, can you update us on the progress?
We are having that paradigm shift and we are moving shoulder high with it. Makerere University Business School, as part of its corporate social responsibility has for the last three years been offering lectures mainly in arts courses to our inmates. We have had three graduations so far and those convicted in senior six are applying to join university. Even the famous Susan Kigula is studying law by external correspondence with a London based university. Beyond this, we have robust religious and psycho-social support programs running smoothly.
Give us an update of the recent controversial escape of prisoners, what and where is the problem?
Escapes are as old as humanity, we are holding people who don’t want to be there. There is no school where students don’t escape so prisons are not from mars to be exceptional, as you think they are also thinking. We now have to address the lapse in our security and think ahead of them.
And then we have the question of prisoners being used as a labour force in farms and complaints abound of nonpayment and inhumane treatment.
There are two areas in the priosn act 2006 that provide for that. Section 5(e) of the act stipulates that it is the responsibility of prisons authority to allocate work for the benefit of inmates and prisons development. Section 57 provides that prisoners are allowed to take meaningful remunerative employment.
That is not the problem, the issue at hand is that you subject them to inhumane treatment and the media has exposed you!
They say that we don’t pay them because they expect the prisoners to get the money earned from labour in cash but we cannot do that! We save it in our petty cash system and they are free to use that money for basics like soap and personal effects. Sometimes government delays to release money yet we have to continue running so it is this money that we use. Of course the allegation of inhumane treatment can never be far from the truth.
You paint an almost angelic picture of the prisons yet the question of human rights violations keeps popping up. What are your key achievements in this regard?
Oh, sorry, you need to read the reports coming out in the recent years. We used to be first on the rights abusers’ page but these days our commissioner General is invited by the United Nations to New York annually to share best practices of Uganda Prisons in human rights observance because we follow to the letter what the law says and punish those who transgress. You have seen how smart our officers are, you have seen us lead parades during national events and trust me if you visit the cells, that high caliber of discipline is emphasized. People are now finding prisons attractive and that is a challenge because they are meant to be no go zones. You know why? They leave prisons very fat and when they return home, they are emaciated because we take good care of them.
The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is prisons is relatively higher than that of the ordinary citizenry outside and yet you continue chest thumping on the strides made so far.
The rate was 11% in men and 13% in women yet in ordinary life it is 6.5% but you know that the people are we hosting are reckless from the word go. A person who commits a crime is not likely to protect his life so most of these come with HIV which transforms to AIDS because of the opportunistic illnesses. You could say it is because of homosexuality but how do you explain women having a higher prevalence rate than women yet chances of lesbians catching HIV are lower?
That brings me to the question of the conjugal rights debate. Where did it end?
Up to tomorrow there will be no conjugal rights till the law is made but the stand point is clear. If we are suffering with congestion, are conjugal rights a priority? The answer is no. Sex is a private matter in our culture unlike whites who do it on the streets but even then, the question is, will you allow a man who has never been visited for three years have conjugal rights? Who qualifies? Anyhow, it is a want not a need and our concern is needs for now.