No one truly knows a nation, until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but rather its lowest ones.
These are the words of former South African President Nelson Mandela in his book, Long Walk to Freedom.
The situation is not any different in the context of Arua Prison. Inmates retain all rights except those which have to be limited to implement the imposed sentence. For that reason, the Constitution guarantees basic rights to everybody, including those who are incarcerated for having committed or are accused of committing a crime.
Majority were arrested without a warrant of arrest, on the basis of a reasonable suspicion or belief that they had committed an offence. It may well be, of course, that further investigations may unearth sufficient supplementary evidence to sustain a conviction.
In far too many cases, however, no such evidence is produced and prosecutors are compelled to withdraw charges after numerous postponements as a result of which the accused may be detained for months, if not years. Every morning, they are taken to work in the garden outside the prisons, while others are hired to do private work in various areas. They return exhausted. They are given some leisure time inside the confinement. While others do carpentry work and rehearse church songs.
The prison, which was constructed in 1930, was meant to accommodate 100 inmates but now houses more than 600. Conditions at the prison are deplorable. The toilet facilities are appalling. Prisoners sleep on the floor on old papyrus mats covered with blankets. They use their trousers and shirts as pillows. Sleeping is never comfortable as the one papyrus mat accommodates at least five inmates.
Inside the dilapidated accommodation blocks for prisoners, there are several cracks on the walls. In the female wing, parts of the wood used for roofing have started rotting, causing fear that the roof way collapse on inmates.
The inmates are subjected to food rationing and there is a shortage of water. Speaking to the Daily Monitor, a former inmate, who preferred to use his prison number 064, said: “Sometimes the number of beans equals to the number of stones. The food is awful and I rarely ate their food. Those without plates get the food served on their hands but they invade the nurses to get some containers to store the food.” He said the accommodation blocks are infested with lice.
Another inmate, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said: “I have been held at this prison for two years now. To get something to eat is very difficult. If the family does not bring us food, we very often sleep on an empty stomach.”
Some of the prisoners also complained of long detention without trial. A woman on remand said: “You do not get privacy. You have to use the bucket for urinating and we are denied access to our husbands.” And when the inmates are being taken to court, they are compelled to walk one kilometre on foot in lines escorted by prison warders.
The regional prisons commander, Mr Patrick Masiga, says: “No one wants to be a prisoner, but what I can say is that some of them are on remand for long. And the justice system should be speedy.”
The region has experienced numerous jailbreaks blamed on long detention without trial, laxity by prison warders, lack of basic facilities and abuse of human rights.
In 2006 shortly after President Museveni was declared winner of the election to pave the way for his third term in office, at least 408 inmates escaped from Arua Prison. Since then, 175 have been recaptured while 233 are still at large. There were 716 prisoners locked up in the correctional facility then. Two weeks ago, three of the 670 inmates escaped. They have not been rearrested.
During a visit to the correctional facility in November 2010, the Commissioner of Prisons, Mr Johnson Byabashaija, said they would ‘soon’ construct two medical wards at the prison’ premises and renovate the existing structures. But no action has been taken to date.
During the African Correction Services Association Conference (ACSA) conference in 2012, the then Minister of Internal Affairs, Mr Hilary Onek, said the government was committed to avail resources to enable Uganda Prisons Service to continue executing its Constitutional mandate of custody of prisoners and rehabilitation of offenders.
In Adjumani District, the dilapidated Olia Prison, which is located seven kilometres from Adjumani Town, has not been renovated for the past 40 years. Constructed in 1966, the structure, which currently has numerous cracks, was recently declared unfit for habitation by the district engineering department.
In April last year after a joint inspection carried out by Adjumani security committee, the engineering department and the district coordinating committee, it was resolved that the facility should be closed.
There are currently 37 inmates at the facility, which is located on the Adjumani-Gulu highway. At least 30 of them are inmates while seven are on remand.
Adjumani Grade One Magistrate Patrick Kitiyo suggested that the inmates, whose lives are at risk, should be transferred to Openzizi Prison. “We should immediately intervene to save the lives of those living in this building because the structure can collapse anytime,” Mr Kitiyo said.
One of the prison warders, who spoke to the Daily Monitor on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talked to the press, said the facility does not have a vehicle to transport prisoners to court. “Sometimes good Samaritans normally offer for us a lift up to the road junction of the court because trekking seven kilometres has never been easy,” he said.
In Koboko District, Gbuktu Prison has not received any renovation for more than 30 years. Termites have eaten some of the wooden poles of the mud and wattle houses, posing a danger of possible collapse. Food rationing is the order of the day.