The six years Susan Nakabugo spent in Luzira Women Prison left a permanent mark on her life. Although the 40-year-old was released in 2014, her tears still flow when she remembers the mental anguish she suffered.
When she was arrested in 2008, Nakabugo was living with her 10-year-old son in Kireka, Wakiso District. “The police came at 1am while we were asleep. I woke my son up and told him to stay in our rented room until the morning when he could travel to the village,” she says.
Today, Nakabugo is visiting her sister, Giida Nikuze, who works at an open makeshift restaurant below the railway line in Bugolobi. Nikuze, 32, is also an ex-convict. In 2008, Nakabugo was arrested for pouring boiling water on a child. When the child died, court convicted her of manslaughter and sentenced her to six years in prison.
Losing one’s freedom can be distressing. From interacting with friends at will, the prisoner must interact with fellow prisoners and wardresses.
“I saw prisoners try to escape but the wardresses captured and beat them. I had to find courage to block my emotions but I was constantly stressed, thinking of my son, wondering if he had eaten,” Nakabugo says, adding, “When I was on remand, I was assigned to make mats. I would go to the workshop and just stare into space the whole day. I was so depressed.”
Doreen Asiimwe Kazoora, the officer-in-charge of Luzira Women Prison, says prisoners are counselled during their incarceration.
“Our welfare officers counsel according to observance. The inmates can also approach the wardresses and request to speak to me or the welfare officers. Extreme cases are treated by psychiatric doctors from Butabika National Referral and Teaching Mental Hospital,” she says.
It was only after being convicted that Nakabugo was given hard labour. For two weeks, she was incarcerated in Kigo Prison before being returned to Luzira.
“From 8am to midday, we worked on the prison farm. Then, we collected firewood in a wetland. The wardens would cut pine trees and give us the heavy logs to carry. You had to carry that log and navigate your way through the wetland. If the log fell down, the warden beat you up.”
Nikuze, who was sentenced to three years for attempted murder in 2012, testifies to the beatings in Kigo, but says as long as one was extremely humble towards the wardresses, they would escape the torture.
Some of the prisoners’ frustrations come from delayed court cases and inadequate legal information. A state lawyer represented Nakabugo but after her conviction, she decided not to appeal.
“I did not want to disturb the court. I also did not have money. I kept on seeing people appeal their cases, in vain, yet they had spent a lot of money.”
Since a big number of inmates come from low socio-economic backgrounds, accessing the legal representation is a challenge. However, probono lawyers such as, African Prisons Project (APP) run legal awareness sessions.
Emmanuel Oteng, a tutor with APP, says, “From these sessions, inmates become aware of their rights and who within the prison community can assist them to ensure those rights are enjoyed.”
Unfortunately, in Kigo, Nikuze did not have access to good legal services. “My lawyer did not instruct me, so I ended up agreeing to everything the prosecutor said. I did not understand what he was saying anyway. No one advised me to appeal the case.”
Rehabilitation to cope with stress
Luzira Women Prison offers tailoring, crafts making and hair dressing classes, has agricultural projects and offers recreational activities such as, netball and music, dance, and drama. For those inclined to formal education, there are classes from pre-primary to university.
“Inmates take part in these activities before midday. In the afternoons, they are free to attend spiritual gatherings or talk to external counsellors,” SP Kazoora says.
Nakabugo sought solace in preachers and counsellors because for six years, none of her family members visited her in prison. One of the counsellors Nakabugo spoke to was Irene Namwano, the executive director of Prison Fellowship Uganda (PFU). Namwano eventually took Nakabugo’s son under her wing and educated him.
She also took solace in routine, making sure that she forced herself to look forward to meal time. On Saturdays, during the digging chores, she would dig for rich prisoners and they would reward her with a cup of rice to supplement the single meal the prison offers daily.
Preparing prisoners for release
Nakabugo and Nikuze were not consciously prepared for their return to the community, apart from being told to forgive their accusers.
“When I walked out of the gate, I was scared. I was emaciated. I knew nothing, I was like a fool. I was only given transport to my village,” Nakabugo says.
According to Kazoora, the prison has a discharge board that sits monthly to find out the inmates who are about to be released. “The welfare office gets in touch with their relatives and some people counsel inmates on forgiveness and reconciliation. Those who have learned a skill are given materials to begin life with.”
However, the information on reconciliation can only be effective if the former inmate has a home to return to and has access to a source of income. The majority of ex-convicts struggle to fit in.
To fight off stigma from her neighbours, Nakabugo found work as a waitress before switching to caring for an older woman at a fee. Nikuze was lucky that her boyfriend and father of her child took her back when she was released in 2014.
When former inmates are not adequately prepared or welcomed back into the community, they may fail to cope with social life. Both Nakabugo and Nikuze do not speak to strangers unless they have been referred by a mutual friend. They do not speak up when angry, instead, they bottle up their feelings. This behaviour shows that there is need for more counselling for former prisoners.
The rehabilitative ethos, or otherwise, of a prison, will have more to do with its management rules and style; the nature of relationships between prisoners and staff, including how conflict and aggression is managed by staff; and the availability of a range of rehabilitative opportunities such as education and work training. In relation to this, a significant part of the psychologist’s work in a prison is contributing to interdisciplinary meetings about specific aspects of the running of that prison.