When you walk through the administration block of Luzira Women’s Prison, the first thing you notice is the neat lawn. Then, you see students studying under three trees. In their yellow uniforms, these are not your average students, though.
Four women sit on benches under the first tree, facing a blackboard on which a map of Uganda is drawn. There is no teacher in sight.
A few feet away, under another tree, a Mathematics lesson is in progress. Judging by the figures the male teacher is writing on the blackboard, they are studying trigonometry bearings.
Behind this particular group is a small green container that serves as the only classroom in the prison. Next to the container is an open mosque where some women, including a grandmother, are sitting on mats.
We enter the green container and find four first-year students waiting for their lecturer. They are students of Common Law with the University of London. The course is sponsored by African Prisons Project (APP).
Luzira Women’s Prison school runs from Functional adult literacy (FAL)/Nursery to Senior Six. However, unlike Upper Prison that has a variety of courses for Senior Six leavers, Women’s Prison only offers a diploma and an undergraduate course in Common Law. Inmates who cannot handle the rigours of Law make do with hair-dressing and crafts-making.
Why higher education
SP Stella Nabunya, officer-in-charge, Luzira Women’s Prison, says as part of the rehabilitation programme for inmates, higher education is important.
“Instead of inmates staying here for many years in idleness, they should continue or start their education, so that when they finally leave prison, whatever they learned will help them start a new life.”
Christine Naigaga, assistant welfare and rehabilitation officer, says the outlook of the Uganda Prisons Services is changing from punitive punishment to correctional services. “Our focus is on changing an illiterate inmate into someone who reasons before they act.
Most times, the decision-making of an educated person differs from that of an illiterate.
With education, they can go far in life.” Besides, life in prison is unpredictable. Numerous appeals against a conviction can overturn a long sentence. With an education, someone who is suddenly set free has a qualification with which to compete in the outside world.
“Some are here because they could not read,” Naigaga says, adding, “And because of this handicap they signed away their land to unscrupulous buyers and later denied it.
That is why our school begins at FAL level where inmates are taught to read and write.” Barbara Nakanwagi, the headmistress of the school, is also a student of Common Law.
This is her tenth year in prison. “When I arrived here, there was a school but it did not have teachers. Nowadays, the Ministry of Education (and Sports) sends teachers and the inmates are more willing to attend classes.”
Nakanwagi enrolled in 2012, in Senior Three. After her Senior Six she applied to study with the University of London.
Complexities of studying Law
Law is a profitable and practical course, but the very nature of prison makes it almost impossible to concentrate. Jane Ndichu, a former Kampala International University student, wishes there was a variety of courses to choose from.
“I study Law because there is no alternative. I would have loved to do something in social sciences or business. However, I appreciate the fact that there is something to study. At least, we know why and how we ended up in prison.”
The students have lectures every day, studying four modules – Public, Common, Contract, and Criminal Law. “There is a plan to engage universities to introduce other courses,” Naigaga says, continuing, “On average, about seven students complete Senior Six every year, and they take vocational classes until an opportunity to study Law presents itself.”
According to Nabunya, the tailor-made courses Makerere Business School (MUBS) offers at Upper Prison have not been extended to the Women’s Prison because of numbers.
“Few inmates go up to Senior Six. Besides, in general, female prisoners are few. MUBS needs a class of, at least, 16 inmates and we cannot raise that number.”
Studying under a tree is challenging, since students are at the mercy of the weather. Unlike in Upper Prison, here, there are no classroom blocks or science laboratories.
“When it rains, it becomes a holiday yet we compete with other students who study every day,” Naigaga laments.
Also, the Primary section does not have teachers. “Inmates teach those classes,” Nabunya says, adding that there is a shortage of scholastic materials.
“We want to use computers and the Internet for research but we do not have that opportunity,” Nakanwagi adds.
Due to security concerns the prison is hesitant to introduce inmates to the Internet. “The computers are not for inmates,” Naigaga says, adding, “They need the Internet but we cannot monitor their usage. They must use textbooks offered by APP, although they are not enough.”
Naigaga, a social worker and paralegal, is also studying Common Law with the inmates.
Almost everyone hints on the psychological stress of imprisonment. Once this depression sets in, it can be days before the student returns to class.
Nabunya says inmates who are serving long sentences are prone to this stress. “They withdraw for days. We counsel them, giving them hope that prison is not the end.” However, even with motivational talks, the depressed inmate has to be monitored.
“She may return to school for one or two days, and then drop out again. It is a process that needs patience. When the Law course was introduced, there were no lecturers and students had to use textbooks they did not understand.”
Susan Kigula, a former inmate and Law student, once dumped a box of textbooks in Nabunya’s office. A combination of stress and the difficult course almost made her quit.
“Of course, many inmates do not want to go back to school, even when the education is free,” Nakanwagi says, adding, “We try to encourage them, but it is not easy.”
Betty Florence Mbatudde who joined the school in 2011, in Senior Five, dreams of becoming a lawyer. She was transferred to Luzira in 2009 from Jinja Prison, where she had been since 2001.
“I have been a prisoner for a long time so I know what it really means. A doctor who was once a patient is the best doctor. That is why I want to help prisoners rotting in jail who cannot afford legal fees.”
For Annette Umutoni, a former Cavendish University student, it is about thinking positively.
“I was arrested in 2011. It never occurred to me to study until I was convicted. I did not expect things to turn out the way they did. However, I have learned is that courage comes from within to produce hope.
And hope tells me I will make it. That is what drives me; and I have no qualms about studying Law.”
On the other hand, Ndichu looks forward to advising inmates who are being released on how to behave so that they are not caught repeat-offending.
Grace Nakalyango is the instructor-in-charge of the salon that has churned out many graduates. “Some learn quickly; others take long. But, they are all willing to learn. At the end of the three or six month’s certificate course, they start their own salons.
The course covers plaiting, retouch, wash and set, and hair treatments.”
Outside, five women are plaiting the hair of fellow inmates. “The course has challenges.
I come early to the salon but some students, who are depressed, come late. I have been in this system for long, so I counsel them. Besides, I have to account for each student since they must graduate.” The salon also serves customers; retouch goes for Shs15,000, while pencil cornrows go for Shs10,000.
In the compound, women sit conversing, or mill around, oblivious to the free classes. Nevertheless, there is hope in the air. For those interested, education is a lifeline, where none existed before.
VALUE TO THE INMATE
A report, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults, released by the RAND Corporation in 2013, indicated that correctional education improved inmates’ outcomes after release.
The findings were that with education, an inmate has higher chances of not returning to prison, and of obtaining employment. Thus, correctional education is cost-effective because it reduces the number of prisoners in the system.