Prison Problems: A Dearth of Awareness

The other day, specifically; a week and two days before penning this, the Foundation for Human Rights released a report which detailed that at least 52% of Uganda’s prison inmates have never received legal representation. As the instant case and its facts would have it, that is, firstly a statistic that is not so surprising, and also, one that is rather quite disappointing.

The mandate of the Uganda Prisons Service is detailed in The Prisons Act 2006, which in Section 4 (1) provides that the main objective of the Prison Service is to contribute to the protection of all members of society by providing reasonable, safe, secure, and human custody and rehabilitation of offenders in accordance with universally accepted standards.

By that provision, it is incumbent upon the Prisons Service to professionalise and develop a well remunerated staff to help it do its work. However, as we have now found out, one of the major reasons for the aforementioned statistic is the existing financial and human resource gaps within the broad Prison Service.

The application of their mandate has not met the minimum expectations. Their challenges and/or results of their experiences have been the results of their excuses.

An example of the Prison Service’s challenges is the statement that “the judiciary requires at least 500 legal officers to help reduce the backlog of cases that are reported to be 26,000.” For as long the Prison Service does not open up, to for example, partnerships with both private and public entities interested in their services, whether local or multinational, they will ably maintain the status quo.

Solutions to the above are not so distant from students reading the law who can study and help to relieve this backlog of cases. Law students, participating in legal aid clinics would help both the prisoners and the prison officers to identify and recommend for dismissal those cases which do not deserve entertainment by prison, police, and judicial officers. It has been found out in previous legal aid projects that some prisoners are in prison illegally or for the wrong reasons. As many as possible qualified lawyers can participate in the same, and be rewarded in continuous legal education points for their contribution.

Another challenge that besets the Prison Service is illustrated by the Prisons spokesperson, Frank Baine, who blames the judiciary for reportedly failing to recruit more officers. In an environment where it is very easy to lay blame upon any other person, it would be ingenious of the Prison Service to take it upon themselves to contact and work with local institutions, which are legal aid service providers or provide related services, such as the Refugee Law Project, the Centre for Legal Aid, and the Law Society.

Such institutions would help mitigate the human resource and financial gaps as the officers they would make available to the Prison Service would help with bettering the investigating departments of the Prisons Service, the Police Force, and the Judiciary, which are not well equipped to conclude the investigations on the numerous cases reported daily.

The report recommended an increase in the amount of money allocated to the judiciary, prisons, and the police in order to address the human and financial resource gaps. However, as noted above, it does not necessarily have to be about money. We have learnt on more than enough occasions that money can be mismanaged. The partnerships or corporations recommended above would help better productivity of the Service, by improving the investigations process, reducing the case backlog, and thus fastening the judicial process even before the money becomes necessary to compensate the efforts of the participants.

The most disappointing revelation of the report is that authorities at detention facilities repeatedly violated the 48 hour rule in which suspects are required to be presented in Court. One of the reasons for this is the disheartening fact that either members of the general public are not aware of their rights in as far as their relationship with the Prison Service is concerned or the Prison Service officers themselves do not brief the prisoners on their rights as they are ought to.

What the legal aid partners recommended above is to adopt legal aid policies which would be aimed at the sensitisation of the general public, suspects, convicts, Prison Service and Police officers, and judicial officers. The policies and sensitisation would address the most cardinal issue in achieving legal representation for prisoners; that of their and our awareness, that of obtaining of any and all necessary information. They should be done freely or as close to it as it can be.

In sum, the Prison Service, and all related legal aid service providers and/or officers ought to open up to partnerships that are aimed at not making their work less tedious, but, importantly, making the lives of prisoners more humane, bearable and comfortable while under the custody of the Prison Service. It is, at the very least, one of the ways that they would be able to achieve their mandate in Section 4 (1) of the Prisons Act – aforementioned.

It is upon this foundation that prisoners who are arbitrarily held can be let go to help create more comfortable room for their mates, and, also, that appropriate lawyers can be appointed to take on particular, well founded cases, cases which will not unnecessarily drag the judicial process.


This article appears in our digital law newsletter, The Deuteronomy Vol 3, Issue 5 of March 31st 2017

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