by Ruth Aine - 01 September 2015
Africa and the world continue to be in a ‘prison dilemma’. There are ‘too many people incarcerated than what our prison facilities can handle and the judicial system seems to be doing little to save the situation.
Going to prison is something that we all loathe in this part of the world. And it is not because we are afraid that we will have no access to the food we want, or internet 24/7 (for those that can afford it), or that we will not be able to enjoy visiting different places and people, getting to wear our Sunday best and going to church, or the mosques on Fridays. We fear the unknown. And this is mostly because of the stories that we have heard.
A couple of friends have been held in cells and others have actually been in prison. I took the liberty to ask a couple of them what that felt like.
Having been held in prison for 14 hours, these were the thoughts of one of them: “Prison in Africa is death before hell, it dehumanizes you, you are dead before presumed innocent, and your only bargaining chip is who you know and how much you value your innocence.”
Another who spent about 72 hours in prison was amazed about how ‘organized’ the system was – the officials came back with phone numbers of people that they wanted to help and things that they wanted to do in that particular prison. Whether those things came to materialize is yet another story.
But I find out that when one goes through prison, they experience two extreme things. They either get depressed, which is the negative extreme, or they become empowered to get out, especially if they have the chance, and do better.
Those who become empowered are very lucky, those that get depressed, on the other hand, live a miserable life whether they leave prison or not.
Prisons are supposed to provide public safety in a way that is legal, humane and sensible. But that is far from what we see. Here in Uganda, research has shown that there are about 28,000 prison inmates who spend the nights standing, due to lack of space in jails. The country’s 247 jails were built to accommodate only 16,000 people. That is really frustrating.
South Africa continues to have the highest rates of imprisonment on the Continent. In February 2013, South Africa had the highest prison population in Africa with 160,000 inmates. Of those, 30% were detained and waiting for trial.
But that does not mean that all is doom. There are some great and amazing programs going on in the prisons that I think ought to be the ‘future of prisons’. The Upper prison is for the ‘grace’ offences like murder while the Lower prison is for minor offences. According to The Guardian, Luzira maximum prison is one of the most progressive prisons in Africa. It has a recidivism rate of less than 30% - even better than prisons in the UK. Uganda has the Upper Prisons Sports Association, it has schools within the prison facility where inmates are able to acquire a basic high school and university education, they have vocational training as well as tailoring and carpentry schools. And while the facility is not the best, neither where everyone would want it to be, it is still able to provide that humane environment that fosters reform of the inmates. This is how I see the future of prisons – communities where people, regardless of what they have done, are given a second chance to make something of their lives even though they are in confinement.