Shock figures reveal crisis state of prisons

Prisoners are marched out of their ward to another, at Lira Prison after anti-riot police fired teargas inside the ward in 2013. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Uganda Prisons spokesperson Frank Baine says the number of inmates has since increased to about 75,000.

A House committee has raised the alarm over overcrowded prisons and called for reforms to the country’s criminal justice system and correctional institutions.

As of January 12, the prisoner population stands at 74,444. Of this, 95.4 percent are male and the state needs nearly Shs150 billion to put food on their plates throughout the financial year.

The country’s correctional system has an approved capacity of 20,036 prisoners. This means 54,408 prisoners are over the approved capacity, implying an occupancy rate of 371.6 percent. With the state able to avail funds that feed the inmates for 261 of the 365 days in a calendar year, dietary concerns cannot be ruled out.

The highest occupancy over the approved capacity is in Mbarara (731 percent) and Kiruhura (688 percent).

While the facilities are not increasing, the number of people incarcerated continues to grow. 
Uganda Prisons spokesperson Frank Baine told Saturday Monitor in an interview that the number of inmates has since increased to about 75,000.

This represents a staggering increase as back in 2013, Uganda had 39,394 inmates according to the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS). The official figures at the time were about 15,000 inmates.

Almost half of the prisoners (48.3 percent) are on remand while the rest (51.2 percent) are convicted and serving their respective sentences. The rest are debtors.

In the first half of the current financial year 2022/2023, the length of stay on remand increased from 19.9 months to 20.1 months for capital offenders and 3.3 months to 3.4 months for petty offenders. 
This, lawmakers insist, is causing congestion in the prisons.

The lawmakers recommend collaboration among government institutions to expedite justice and reduce prisoners on remand to below 20 percent in the next three financial years.

“This means congestion at Uganda Prisons partly created by delayed justice from the Judiciary; a slow pace at increasing the holding capacity of prisons; rising levels of crime or offenders of the law; arrests without warrants, among others,” the lawmakers say.

Mr Baine concurs with the lawmakers, but hastens to add that Uganda Prisons is powerless as it is “at the tail end of [the justice system].”

He explained that their role is to receive the inmates and ensure that they serve their respective sentences, among other duties. 

The House Committee on Defence nevertheless “recommends prioritisation of the construction of low-cost security prisons and one additional regional mini-max prison similar to the Kitalya model over the medium term with a capacity of over 2,000 prisoners.”

Other institutions
Meanwhile, prison authorities and several other government entities—including the Lands ministry, the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), and Uganda Land Commission—are required to vacate the premises they occupy on Parliamentary Avenue before July 1. Authorities at Parliament have already written to the entities to vacate the premises by the said date.

“You can’t simply tell us to move without providing us with an alternative or resources to get where to go,” Mr Baine told Saturday Monitor in an interview.

He further added that the alternative prisons authorities have to move their headquarters to the unfinished Justice, Law, and Order Sector (JLOS) House in Naguru.  He explained, however, that even if the premises were available, the space is insufficient for their operations. Mr Baine confirmed that the process to get the prisons headquarters has been on, but this has been derailed by lack of resources.

A source, who asked not to be named, said Parliament should concentrate on completing its chambers and allocating funds to the entities it wants to displace instead of what they termed as “bullying.”
Currently, Parliament rents facilities at Queen’s Chambers, Kingdom Kampala, and at Raja Chambers as offices for staff and the more than 500 lawmakers. 

Parliament response
Mr Chris Obore, the director of communication and public affairs at Parliament, said “the reallocation is for purposes of Parliament raising a one-stop centre for offices of staff and Members of Parliament.”  
He also revealed that the executive—the other branch of government—has been made aware of the development.

“In the estimation of Parliament leadership, the construction of an office complex for Parliament eliminates the cost of renting private buildings for offices of MPs and staff of Parliament thus save taxpayers money in the long run,” Mr Obore reasoned.

He added: “The prisons and others affected are not against their relocation except that they want money to facilitate the process. That should be handled by the Executive in collaboration with Parliament. It’s a budgetary issue. Renting offices for MPs and staff of Parliament in perpetuity is not a good idea.”

Housing, feeding inmates 

The lawmakers on the parliamentary committee also reckon “there is a need to enhance access to justice through prison alignments to courts of law; and timely production of prisoners to court.”

The construction of five low-cost security prisons will cost Shs3.8 billion each. Only Shs605m had been allocated by the Finance ministry in the coming financial year. Elsewhere, to construct one regional mini-max prison with a capacity of 2,000 prisoners requires Shs63 billion

The House committee wants the government to provide Shs3.8 billion for the construction of low-cost security prisons in the next financial year. 

The committee members have also directed Uganda Prisons to come up with an infrastructure development project for multi-year projects like constructing a regional mini-max prison at Kakiika, Mbarara.

With the rising numbers, prison authorities are struggling to feed their daily average of 81,729 prisoners. Shs5,000 is budgeted to feed each prisoner per day, including food from prison farms. Prisons authorities require Shs149.1 billion in the next financial year. 

The government provides only Shs106.6 billion, which is sufficient for only 261 days. This leaves a shortfall of Shs42.5 billion. The House committee has recommended that the government covers the shortfall for prisoners’ feeding expenses.

In the next financial year, only 6,955 staff of 13,798 have been provided with uniforms. This leaves a funding gap of Shs6.1 billion that lawmakers want provided.