Luzira Prison, Uganda’s largest penitentiary, sprawls over several hundred acres in southwest Kampala. Overlooking fields of maize and the Bugolobi Flats, it is divided among four campuses: the remand prison, the Upper Prison, Victoria Bay, and the women’s prison.
The remand prison is exclusively for men who have been charged with a crime, but have either not yet begun trial or not yet concluded trial. The issue of remand is one of the most glaring problems in the criminal justice system of Uganda.
When I met with the registrar of the High Court a few weeks ago, he told me that when he took over his post last year, there were men who had been “on remand” since 2002. These are men who have not been convicted of a crime, yet remained in prison awaiting trial. Since his time as registrar, the time that prisoners have been on remand the longest has been shortened, but speaking with the prisoners for only a few minutes reveals stories that confound and frustrate.
I spoke with a man (standing, pictured in a maroon shirt) whose story would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the prison system here. In the picture, he is reading to me the phone number he’s written down, making sure I understand it. His name is Apenyo Brian, and he had been at Luzira for almost two months when we arrived. He told me he had been charged with stealing a cell phone. He didn’t know who his accuser was, and, he insisted, he had not done it. But he had been there for 51 days. And his family did not know where he was—he had no way of contacting them. So he asked a total stranger to do it for him.
Later that afternoon, I tried calling the number. A recording telling me that the phone could not receive calls was the only answer I received. I tried four times over the next several hours. Nothing.
All Brian needed was a family member to show up in court as a surety, vouch for him, and pay the 30,000 Uganda shillings bail would cost. That’s less than $15. But he could not reach friend or family. Nor could I.
Sadly, Brian’s story was more the rule than the exception.
With an escort of prison security guards, we walked freely among the inmates and spoke with them. The danger I suspect I would feel doing the same in an American prison was absent here. There is, however, a constant sense that the eyes of hundreds of men who have either been charged with or convicted of a crime follow your every move. While I did not feel unsafe, it was, at least at times, unnerving.
Part of this resulted from the gross overcrowding of the prison. In the Upper Prison, the largest section of Luzira that was designed to house only 600 convicts, there were 2,400 men, half of whom were there on remand. Less than half these men had beds. For some, a bed was a foam pad on the floor. And quarters were cramped.
Imagine your high school’s gymnasium. Picture the basketball court, and cut it in half, lengthwise. Build windowless brick walls up to the ceiling. Then remove the hardwood and replace it with deteriorating concrete. Now imagine 120 grown men, who are lucky if they get a shower every two days, sleeping in that space. Now dig a hole in one corner, and hide it behind a curtain. That’s the bathroom. One door at the end of this concrete court provides the only ventilation.
There is no privacy. There are no mosquito nets. Malaria, tuberculosis, and other forms of illness are rampant.
Among the visitors there is a consensus that we are being shown only the most hospitable parts of Luzira.
The inmates get one meal a day. Whatever image you have in your mind of “prison slop” cooked in giant vats is a near approximation to what these men eat. A member of our group asks if the inmates ever get more than one meal a day if there is extra. The guards think this is funny.
Everywhere we go, men clad in prison issue yellow shirts and shorts stare at us. Some look up from their homemade board games that resemble Parcheesi. Some are gardening in the small plots that border the large courtyard with a dusty soccer field in the middle. But most just stand in small groups, talking, watching the shadows creep, slowly passing time. Some smile, others glare, but most just wonder at the group of muzungus breaking up the monotony of their monotony.
As we walk into the cage that backs onto the front gate through which we’ll exit, I am ready to leave. And it has only been 45 minutes.
The next morning, I could not shake the conversation I had with Brian, the man in the maroon shirt. It was a Thursday morning, and his hearing was scheduled for the next day. He needed someone to act as his surety. If no one showed up, he would likely be in prison until his trial begins, which could be months.
Before I headed to court, I called the number once more. It rings this time. And rings.
I was just about to hang up when a man answered, “Yes, please?”
“Hello.” I read the name written on the paper from the day before. “Do you know Apenyo Brian?”
“Do you know where he is?” I ask.
“No. He is missing.”
“He is in Luzira Prison. He has been there for almost two months,” I say.
“He is in Luzira Prison. He was accused of stealing a cell phone.” Silence. I try to explain. “He needs someone to come to the prison or to court to stand as a surety for him.”
“What do I do?”
“Someone needs to come to Kampala, to Luzira Prison so that he can be freed while he awaits trial. He is scheduled to go to Nakawa Court tomorrow. He needs a surety.”
“How do I surety?”
“I don’t know. You must go to the prison or the court to find out.”
“Where is the court?”
“It is in Nakawa.”
“How do I get there?”
“I don’t know. But it is tomorrow. And he needs a friend or family member to show up.”
“What do I do when I show up?”
“I’m not sure, but I think you need money. 30,000 shillings, I think.”
“Is that all I need to do,” he asks. Urgency and confusion are thick in his voice.
“I’m sorry, I have told you all I know.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
“Nakawa Court. Tomorrow. Good luck.” The line goes dead.
Like many people in the criminal system with little knowledge of its inner workings, the man I spoke with had many questions, but the answers were hard to come by.