‘We’ve no breathing space in prison cells’

Internal Affairs minister Kahinda Otafiire (L), Commissioner General of Uganda Prisons Johnson Byabashaija (C) and Mr Christoph Sutter, the head of Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, at the opening ceremony of the workshop on Prison Infrastructure in Kampala on November 14, 2023. PHOTO/STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

  • Dr Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of Prisons, said the congestion has affected the quality of life and accommodation. 

The Uganda Prisons Service (UPS) has said they are stuck with many prisoners on remand and civil debtors, causing congestion in different prisons across the country.

Addressing prisons chiefs at the opening ceremony for the Workshop on Prison Infrastructure in Africa on Tuesday,

Dr Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of Prisons, said they have a total population of 76,367 inmates.  
Of these, 39,453 have been convicted, 36,442 are on remand and 472 are civil debtors, who have pushed the total occupancy rate to 366.76 percent, causing high infection rates for Hepatitis B and Tuberculosis.

“This is the reason why the discussion on prisons infrastructure is relevant. We have done incarceration rates in the region. In Uganda, for every 100,000 Ugandans, 168 are in prison. Kenya stands at 107, Burundi 83, South Sudan 58 and Tanzania has the lowest at 50,” he said.

He added that the congestion at the prisons has also affected the quality of life and accommodation of the prisons officers because the way a prisoner sleeps is the same way prisons officers do. 

He further said they have been forced to establish an engineering department which is now constructing new prisons to cater for growing prisoner numbers and staff accommodation.

Mr Henry Tiberondwa, the head of engineering department in UPS, said they operate 49 government prisons and 222 prisons units, including district local government prisons across the country. 

In the 2006/2007 national budget, government allocated UPS $40,000 towards infrastructure development. In 2010/11 budget, government increased funding to $80,000 while in 2016/17 financial year, they received $400,000. He added that lately, they are spending $1.3m to renovate dilapidated buildings that are accommodating high profile criminals.

“We are currently doing the construction by ourselves. Many factors are affecting the maintenance, including the [lack of] political will. Until politicians started visiting prisons as customers, that is when their attitude towards maintenance changed. We are now doing maintenance planning. We have regional maintenance officers who do anything to do with water and sanitation whenever it comes up,” Mr Tiberondwa added.

Mr Frank Baine, the Prisons spokesperson, said as an entity, they have no control over decongesting prisons because their work is to keep prisoners. 

He added that whereas the law provides for inmates to spend only 180 days on remand, some prisoners are going for more than two years without trial or being convicted.  

He advised prisoners who have spent longer time in prison to sue government for longer detention.
Gen Kahinda Otafiire, the Internal Affairs minister, who officially opened workshop, advised the prisons chiefs to tap into the idle human resource of the different professionals in jail to improve the living conditions. 

He said as prisons, they are keeping highly qualified engineers, accountants and scientists, whose expertise can be used to fight poverty and improve the living conditions within the prisons.

Mr Christoph Sutter, the head of the Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said they have been facilitating African prisons to share challenges they face. 

He further said the inhumane conditions that prisoners are subjected to due to poor maintenance in the prison facilities, was pointed out as the biggest challenge, in addition to inadequate water and sanitation facilities.