Growing pressure on prisons under strain

Nearly a decade ago, the Kampala Declaration on Prison Conditions in Africa was drawn up to improve the situation of inmates across the continent. In an ironic twist, however, the capital that gave its name to the initiative has yet to meet the goals of the declaration.

The same goes for the rest of Uganda.

Delegates of the 47 countries who attended the seminar where the 1996 declaration was set out recommended—amongst others—that the human rights of prisoners should be respected, and that jail conditions should allow them to live with dignity.

But as the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) has noted, prisons in the country are overcrowded and vermin-infested—a problem that looks set to become worse as jail construction fails to keep pace with increasing prison populations. (The government-funded UHRC is a constitutionally entrenched body.)

A census done in August 2003 showed that there were 17 523 inmates in Uganda, even though prisons should only have been accommodating 8 563. The number of inmates is expected to reach 20 000 by July this year.

“It is true that the prisons are overcrowded,” said Mary Kaddu, the assistant commissioner of prisons in charge of public relations. “The situation is so bad that some prisoners have to sleep in turns.”

She says the country’s main penitentiary, the Luzira Upper Prison, currently houses more than 2 000 inmates—despite having been built for 600.

In acknowledgement of the fact that justice delayed is often justice denied, the constitution stipulates that all Ugandans have the right to a fair, speedy and public trial. However, inquiries by rights activists have shown that certain offenders remain in custody for almost a decade before the disposition of their cases.

“Overcrowding is as a result of problems in the criminal justice system, which seems to be slow: there are so many cases that have not been concluded,” says Martin Masiga, national coordinator of the Human Rights Network, an umbrella body for rights groups in Uganda.

According to Kaddu, inmates on remand account for 62,2% of the total prison population.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that, in a country where 38% of people live below the poverty line, many prisoners are unable to afford bail.

And, when the courts are eventually ready to hear their cases, inmates may not be able to appear before the judge.

“We do not have transport to take these prisoners to court in time. We have only one old bus and we were given another one just recently. But even then, that is not enough,” says Kaddu. In some areas, prisoners walk miles to get to court.

Blame has also been laid at the door of the police, who are accused of delaying justice through not concluding their investigations of jailed suspects rapidly enough.

However, police claim that they too are the victim of a lack of resources.

“As the population grows, criminals also increase. Yet the services in the police and prisons are not growing,” said police spokesman Asuman Mugenyi, noting that while there were 18 000 police officers in the service in 1971, this number had shrunk to 14 000 by 2004.

In 1969, Uganda had a population of 9,5-million. By 2002, it had shot up to 24,4-million, according to the latest National Population and Housing Census.

“It would thus be unfair to put the blame on the police. It’s like putting the cart before the horse ... You find a policeman has 30 cases to investigate and he is not facilitated,” adds Mugenyi.

In 2000, the Community Service Act was passed—a law that seeks to alleviate overcrowding in prisons through having inmates convicted of minor offences serve their sentences in the community.

This initiaitve, says Kaddu, is “working well”.

The Swedish government has also provided funds to renovate and enlarge a number of prisons.

However, it doesn’t seem likely that these measures will relieve Ugandan authorities of the need to extend the country’s prison system. Equally, the budgetary constraints that prevented officials from doing so before are still in place.

“The issue of overcrowding has been raised many times, but the national budget cannot allow for expansion,” says legislator Kabakumba Labwoni Masiko, a member of the parliamentary Defence and Internal Affairs Committee.

“They (prisoners) are criminals, yes, but they are still human beings—so the minimum standards should be met. The bottom line is that they are human beings.”—IPS

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