Last edited: December 06, 2004

Disease, Overcrowding Raging in Jailhouses

The Monitor, December 5, 2004
Kampala, Uganda

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 3,000.

Dark shadow

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 died suddenly”.

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 gangs inside.

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.

The numbers

A look at prisoner numbers shows that 62.6 percent of the entire prison population are remand prisoners, and that almost half that are petty offenders.

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 Uganda.

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 mortality.

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 arrest.

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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