On a sweltering afternoon recently, the Daily Monitor met four prisoners near Uganda Martyrs Church in Mbarara Town escorted by two armed prison warders trekking to Kakiika Prison commonly known as Kyamugorani.
Clad in yellow attire, handcuffed in pairs and walking barefoot, the detainees, who were from Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital for treatment, had just started the 5km journey back having walked the same distance to get medication earlier in the morning.
That was not a peculiar encounter though.
Those who live in Mbarara have often seen prisoners and warders from Kakiika walking to Mbarara court or hospital. Yet they are supposed to be transported in prison vehicles. Prison officials in the southwestern region say lack of transport and overcrowding in prisons are the major challenges.
“The reason you always see these prisoners walking is because of the transport challenge. At times I am forced to use my personal vehicle to transport some of these inmates who are badly off to and from hospitals for treatment,” says Mr Geoffrey Ogwang, the in-charge of Mbarara Main, Mbarara Women, Kakiika, Buhweju, Bushenyi and Isingiro prisons.
People who are on remand at Mbarara Main and the Regional Prisons Commander, Mr Tobias Oca Ebong, who were interviewed for this article, attested to these challenges.
There are six lorries and one pick up truck for 19 prisons hosting 5,118 remands and convicts in Ankole, Kigezi and part of Tooro sub-regions.
These vehicles are supposed to carry staff, inmates, firewood and food. When there are no vehicles, inmates and warders walk like is the case with those in Kakiika we met. It also means delay in getting supplies such as food and other essentials that require a vehicle to carry which affect the welfare of the prisoners.
Prison staff are not enough. The ratio of staff to prisoners should be 1:3 but now at 500 staff in region and 5,000+ prisoners, the ratio is about 1:10. Going by the present number of prisons in the region, they require 1,500 staff if they are to follow the recommended ratio of 1:3.
Though the staff are over stretched there have not been jail breaks in the region recently. The last one happened at Ndorwa prison in Kabale six years ago.
“We don’t have jail breaks or strikes, security is always very tight despite the fact that the staff are few,” says Mr Ebong.
The number of prisoners is four times more than the total capacity of these facilities. Going by the design, there are supposed to be a combined 1,279 prisoners in all these prisons which are spread in 12 districts. Mbarara Main alone, which was built in the 1940s to accommodate 150 prisoners, had 1,297 in mates by Thursday.
“It is not unusual to find that these prisons have dilapidated structures. Most of the structures, for example at Mbarara Main, Kakiika, Ndorwa, Kisoro and Mparo, were built in 1940s,” says Mr Ebong.
However, a new prison has been built in Kiruhura District with a 300-inmate capacity and by press time, it had 222 inmates. New blocks have been built at Mbarara and Bushenyi prisons and will accommodate a few more prisoners.
Congestion leads to diseases to thrive among the inmates all the time. Lack of enough space implies keeping remand prisoners with convicts, hard core criminals with those who have simple cases, youth with men and the sick with those who are not, betraying Uganda Prisons mission which is “to provide safe, secure and humane custody of offenders while placing human rights at the centre of correctional programmes.”
“A remand prisoner is assumed to be innocent. He is entitled to good food and accommodation but right now we can’t separate them (from convicts) because of lack of structures. What we are able to do now is to separate men from women. We also try to separate those with TB and scabies from others,” Mr Ebong says.
Prisoners sleep on top of each other
Mr James Abaho, who was at Mbarara Main on remand for seven months and released in March this year, says congestion is torturing inmates as well as diseases such as TB, cough and scabies.
“People are very many to the extent that at night, you hear others crying because their colleagues have slept on their top or limbs. They are in pain. If you wake up to ease yourself, you lose your space, you can’t fix yourself there again,” he says.
This happens especially when non capital offenders like the idlers, pickpockets and those arrested over affray are brought in. “They come in big numbers and inmates sleep on one side of their bodies throughout the night. Scabies, TB, cough, bed bugs and lice are persistent,” he says.
Feeding and medication are not adequate. At 10am, breakfast of porridge is served. Lunch is served at 1pm or 12.30pm and supper at 4.30pm. But when there is lack of food, which happens due to various reasons, prisoners have two meals a day instead of three, with breakfast of porridge served at 11 am and small ration of posho and beans in the evening.
“They serve you a small piece of posho and beans that can fit on tea spoon, and then you wait until the next day,” he says.
For medication, he says “someone can easily die of malaria, especially the old people. Such ailments are not given a lot of attention. Prisoners rely on the prison clinic inside. But Aids patients get a lot of attention and care. They are always taken to TASO or MJAP in town.”
He says the major challenge is that people stay long on remand.