Disease, Overcrowding Raging in Jailhouses
Monitor, December 5, 2004
Screams of a young man—a prisoner—on a mid-October
night ended abruptly at Luzira Prison in Kampala.
Fellow inmates of 23-year-old Benjamin Buloba thought he
had finally fallen asleep after suffering an agonising stomach upset. But when
day broke on October 15, Buloba was dead—just days after entering prison.
Uganda’s jailhouses have become quite notorious for the
frequent deaths of inmates, a fact prisons authorities blame on HIV/Aids,
overcrowding and scarce resources.
National prisoner population stood at 18,413 at the end
of October 2004, far outstripping the holding capacity of jailhouses.
For example, Luzira’s Upper Prison, where Buloba spent
his last night, was designed to hold 600 people but today it holds more than
The fate of prisoner Buloba has refocused the spotlight
on the poor state of Uganda’s prisons, especially following claims in the
press that he was gang raped by fellow inmates before he died.
There have been conflicting accounts of Buloba’s last
days. Reports attributed to his family say Buloba, who is said to have made a
maiden trip to Kampala from his home in Kamuli to meet with relatives, was
picked up by police on charges of “conspiracy to commit a felony”.
The exact type of felony is not mentioned.
A felony is “one of several grave crimes, such as
murder, rape, or burglary, punishable by a more stringent sentence than that
given for a misdemeanor”.
Upon arrest, Buloba reportedly called his sister in a
panic worried about what awaited him in prison.
Official prison records dispute the claim of homosexual
rape or whether it led to Buloba’s death.
Ms Mary Kaddu, the assistant commissioner of prisons in
charge of public relations, said by the time he was committed to prison,
Buloba was already ill.
“Fellow prisoners said he kept putting toilet paper in
his anus,” Kaddu told 93.3 KFM recently. “On the day he died, he did not
eat and had diarrhoea. A prisoner who went to the toilet found he had
collapsed with faeces all over. His friends picked him up and cleaned him but
he kept crying ‘oh my stomach, oh my stomach.”‘
The prison authorities, however, have not presented
evidence that the prisoner had complained of a stomach illness or whether his
complaints had been registered at the prison’s sick bay.
Their report records that Buloba was “reported well but
The cause of death was said to be respiratory failure
secondary to tuberculosis.
“He was found with water in his lungs—about one litre,”
said Dr Johnson Byabashaija, the deputy commissioner general of prisons,
speaking on the same KFM programme as Kaddu.
He hastened to add that the mortality rate in prisons has
reduced (now at between 1 and 1.2 percent annually) but that most deaths are
due to “immuno-suppression syndrome related to HIV/Aids”.
In Buloba’s case, a lot more has been written about his
condition. Sources at Mulago hospital say at the time his body was received,
there was evidence of “trauma of the rectum” possibly due to sexual rape.
Ex-prisoners, some of whom called into the radio talk
show, say that homosexuality—consensual or not—is common in the jails but
authorities are reluctant to address it.
One such caller, Mr Peter Okodu, who said he served time
in Luzira, claimed he witnessed sodomy.
He blamed prison authorities for not doing enough to
protect inmates from sexual violence from within the cells.
But, according to Dr Byabashaija, “Sexual issues are
discreet but we have mechanisms to detect and punish homosexuality which as
you know is illegal under our laws.”
Still, he admits that the prison system is resource
strapped and lacks the personnel to properly ensure the rights of inmates
especially from prisoner-on-prisoner violence.
According to ex-prisoners, warders in charge of cells
stand outside after final lock down leaving the prisons under the control of
Big prisoner numbers also mean that hardcore criminals
share the same space with others who are in jail for petty crimes such as
failure to pay graduated tax.
A look at prisoner numbers shows that 62.6 percent of the
entire prison population are remand prisoners, and that almost half that are
Moreover, the numbers of capital offenders as a share of
the total remand population (72 percent) is swelled by young men below the age
of 25 most of whom are awaiting trial on charges of defilement.
Extended remand time is blamed on the slow criminal
justice system, which is complicated by the legal requirement that defilement
suspects can only have their cases heard by a judge of the High Court.
Given there are not many judges to go around and there
are more defilement cases streaming in, particularly from the countryside, the
result can only be an increase of cases to be heard and suspects on remand.
Not surprisingly, the defilement cases lead the prisoner
population followed by murder (30 percent), robbery (16 percent). Fewer
numbers make up rape cases (4.9 percent), treason (1.5 percent) and
manslaughter (0.3 percent).
“We do not have organised homosexuals in our jails,”
said Byabashaija. The talk of homosexual rape makes prison officials even more
uncomfortable on account of a raging national debate on same sex relations in
Commissioner General Joseph Etima, the head of prisons,
has formed a special five-member task force that includes a sociologist to
look into allegations of homosexuality within the jails.
Mr Etima argues that the presence of homosexuals in the
general population means some of them could indeed also be in jails.
What is for sure is that Buloba’s death could throw
more light on the connection between poor prison conditions and prisoner
This could add more fire to the need to speed up legal
and penal reform for Uganda’s already disreputable centres of detention.
A 1997 report by the Uganda Human Rights Commission,
reads in part: “...due to overcrowding, prison facilities such as toilets
and bathrooms were overused, and sanitation was poor. Flush toilets had broken
down and were replaced with buckets, particularly at night. Toilets were
filthy, and most wards smelled badly. Wards were generally unclean. Inmates
complained of lice, bedbugs and fleas... No prison visited had proper bedding.
Prisoners slept on bare cement floor without blankets... In most prisons,
including Gulu, Ndorwa, Loro, Arua and Rwimi, the UHRC found many emaciated
and sickly prisoners. With the exception of Luzira, prisons did not make clean
drinking water available to prisoners... In Kakiika Central Government Prison,
Mbarara, the UHRC found a nurse using one hypodermic needle to inject all sick
prisoners, a practice which spreads HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other dangerous
infections... Poor prison conditions have led to deaths of prisoners from
malnutrition, dehydration, dysentery and pneumonia. Arua Prison reported 57
deaths in 1997, the highest number for any prison in the country... Prison
regulations prohibit beating of prisoners but inmates reported beating by
warders. Evidence of beatings could be seen on some prisoners’ bodies.”
A report by Human Rights Watch this year accuses the
government of using detention centres for deliberate torture of what is
described as political prisoners.
“An informal survey at Kigo Prison near Kampala where
‘political’ prisoners are held, indicated in June 2003 that 90 percent of
detainees/prisoners had been tortured during their prior detention by state
military and security agencies,” HRW claimed.
The rights group says that since political torture is
illegal and therefore hidden, it provided an environment in which “other
unlawful acts are carried out” including sexual abuse and rape.
Rights of prisoners in Uganda
The Constitution states the fundamental rights of every
Ugandan and is inspired by international standards of the rights and freedoms
every human being is entitled to regardless of gender or race.
It also protects all Ugandans from being subjected to any
form of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Chapter Four partly provides:
All persons are equal before and under the law in all
spheres of political, economic, social and cultural life and in every other
respect and shall enjoy equal protection of the law.
A person arrested, restricted or detained shall be kept
in a place authorised by law and informed immediately, in a language that he
or she understands about the reasons for the arrest, restriction or detention
and of his or her right to a lawyer of his or her choice. Their next of kin
are to be informed about the reasons for their detention.
Such a person shall be brought to court as soon as
possible but in any case not later than 48 hours from the time of his or her
The next-of-kin, lawyer and personal doctor of that
person shall be allowed reasonable access to that person; and that person
shall be allowed access to medical treatment including, at the request and at
the cost of that person, access to private medical treatment.
Where a person is arrested in respect of a criminal
offence they are entitled to apply to the court to be released on bail.
The right to an order of habeas corpus shall be
inviolable and shall not be suspended.
No person shall be held in slavery or servitude or
required to perform forced labour except if it’s a consequence of the
sentence or order of a court. And any labour required of any person while that
person is lawfully detained which, though not required in consequence of the
sentence or order of a court, is reasonably necessary in the interests of
hygiene or for the maintenance of the place at which the person is detained.
There are also many international treaties, to some of
which Uganda is a signatory, that spell out the human rights standards
governing the treatment of prisoners.
They include the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman
and Degrading Treatment and Punishment.
The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example,
states that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with
humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.
The United Nations also requires governments to observe
the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
The Prisons Bill 2003, being considered by Parliament,
aims to adopt these humane standards.
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