Building a Just Society with African Prisons Project

I recently got the opportunity to interview the phenomenal Peter Tibigambwa, African Prisons Project (APP)’s Country Program Manager for Uganda.  Founded in 2004, APP believes in prisons for catalysts for change, and builds sustainable interventions that actively engage prisoners to challenge injustice and empower local governments to implement sustainable change. Through its programs in Kenya and Uganda, this admirable organization changing the social justice landscape of East Africa.

Read more here or find the full piece below.

In African Prisons Project’s view, what’s the role of prison in society? What does an ideal prison look like?
African Prisons Project believes that prisons should be places of positive transformation, and that prisoners should not be deprived of their humanity. I think that the ideal prison space is one in which those who end up there but should not be there leave as soon as possible. Those who should be there should have the right to a humane stay where they have a hygienic space and proper diet as well as an understanding of why they are imprisoned. They should be encouraged to use that time to transform their lives and influence their communities.

Where does APP get most of its funding?
Our funding is mainly from trusts, foundations, and high-network individuals as well as some contributions from local embassies and government institutions in Uganda and Kenya. Prisons work is not the most fancy, so often donors would rather prioritize things like childhood education or maternal mortality.

What are your current, most active programs?
We have four key program areas with various associated projects.

The first is leadership development, where we inmates with a track record of leadership while in prison, a demonstrated commitment to supporting their peers, and have graduated from A-levels in Uganda with a good academic record. These inmates apply to the University of London through the African Prisons Project, and enroll in the liberal education program. These students go on to study law, and use the legal skills they learn from their day-to-day life and their classes to provide legal support to their peers. We have male and female inmates as well as prison staff that are enrolled to study law, and they establish legal aid clinics within the prisons. At the moment, that program runs in three prisons in Kenya and two prisons in Uganda.

We also have a human rights advocacy program where we have prison staff and prisoners who have also a similar track record of demonstrated commitment, and we enroll them on a ten-day training course. They graduate as prison human rights advocates, and then go on to act as links between the prisons, the police, and the community. Access to justice isn’t just about the individual who has been accused, but it’s a chain of events so you need to engage with all the different stakeholders. The advocates help inmates access timely justice mainly around bail, utilization of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, and better sentencing. Last year in Uganda, we had funding for a project in a district with six prisons and had 817 inmates access justice within a period of about ten months.

You find that the average inmate in Uganda is someone between twenty-one and forty-five-years old—individuals in their productive years. When these individuals are locked up for several years, they often lose track of events in their communities and they’re often illiterate. Our life skills program identifies these individuals, equips them with literacy and numeracy skills, and graduates them with some practical skills. Different projects include dairy farming, agriculture, and carpentry, and are linked to what the inmate is doing and the resources they have available back home. The life skills program is currently only in Uganda.

We’ve established thirteen libraries in Uganda, and we’ll be launching a library in Kenya this month. We provide reading resources as well as comprehensive materials for those who can’t read and write, like comic books and illustrated books. We also have mother-to-child reading groups, book clubs, debating clubs, and poetry clubs. The libraries are not only a key tool for people to improve their reading and writing skills, but also a way for inmates to understand what their judicial rights are. A recent report in Uganda showed that in last four years that nine out of ten people have wanted to access some type of legal support but did not.

We also have a health care program. We aim to address the challenges that result from overcrowding in prisons. Although Uganda has made amount of progress in improving facilities, the number of facilities is still insufficient. There are just over 40,000 inmates in Uganda, yet the total capacity is around 15,000. Clearly you can see that the occupancy rate is over 250% with 2.5 people sleeping in a space meant for one. The biggest health issues are around water, hygiene, and sanitation as there are conditions that are favorable for transmission of TB and skin diseases.

There’s a huge need to strengthen the link between prisons, communities, and health care services. Prison communities need to be empowered to understand their public health care requirements in order to mitigate disease breakouts. Working with the Uganda Prison Service, we piloted a successful prison village health care model in eight prisons in Northern Uganda. The success of the project helped the Prison Service apply for more funding from the Centers for Disease Control to roll out the program across the country. Now all Ugandan prisons have that model in place—a huge milestone for Uganda and APP.

We also have a secondment program where prisons officers from Uganda and Kenya go to the UK to benchmark their progress against other systems, and learn how they can implement different policies in their countries.

The Ugandan government and prison services are active, committed partners. They’ve helped by establishing an Open Door Policy where APP has the opportunity to come in and implement these programs.

What are the conditions like in prisons in Kenya and Uganda? How do the two countries compare?
I am not very knowledgeable about Kenya, but I do know that the remand population in both countries is over 50% as well as 250% occupancy in both countries. The rate of prison population growth is not well aligned with the development of facilities to accommodate the inmate population, and there are inadequate health care services. Africa-wide, I haven’t seen any country that has adequate services, but when we’re talking about a vulnerable group, both in Uganda and Kenya, which is locked up in the same space, it’s a breeding ground for disease. In Uganda, the prevalence of HIV in prisons is almost double the prevalence in the outside community.

The Uganda Prison Service has made progress through the prison village health care model, but I don’t think they have a similar program in Kenya yet.

What are the most common crimes that land people in prison in Kenya and Uganda?
The types of crime often differ between urban and rural areas. In rural settings, you’re more likely to find land-related crimes, defilement, and petty offenses. Defilement is still common in urban centers where there are also some robbery cases as well as a few murder ones.

How does the ratio of men to women in prison compare in Uganda?
There are a lot more men than women in prison, but they are imprisoned separately. They each have their own spaces. In Uganda, it’s about 95% men to 5% women. In Kenya, it’s about 90% men and 10% women.

In the United States, there’s a big conversation around mental health issues among prisoners. Do Uganda and Kenya face similar problems?
I don’t have statistics on that, but I can tell you that the mental health issue is serious. It’s not just about observing that someone is mentally ill, but inmates need to be assessed or triaged. In Ugandan society, even in the outside community, it remains difficult to diagnose mental illness due to a lack of qualified mental health professionals. In prisons, it’s even more difficult to address these issues given the minimal available resources for health care support. I’ve spoken to prisons officers before who’ve expressed that it’s clear that many prisoners do have mental illnesses.

Is there any support for ex-offenders to help them re-enter society?
In Uganda, there are some NGOs doing a lot of work in re-integrating inmates back into their communities. In the long-term, APP hopes to become more active in that space as we understand that it should be an essential component of prison’s work. Re-integration of prisoners doesn’t start from when they get released, but it’s a process that starts at entry—where they’re coming from, their skills, and how they can productively use their time in prison.

The Ugandan Prison Services is making strides in addressing this key area. Through APP, many prisons in Uganda that you’ll visit have different life-skills programs that prisoners can enroll in. You have to look at the community they’ll return to, and do a pre-assessment of the landing ground of someone who will soon be released from prison. The Prisons Services has a model that should work that way, but due to inadequate funding, the welfare officers assigned to each prison are unable to visit the family members in the communities that prisoners will eventually return to. Because of the distance between the prison and the prisoners’ community, these welfare visits often don’t happen, so when a prisoner comes out of a community, they might struggle to re-adjust to their home.

Are the any African countries that APP looks to as models for criminal justice?
You just mentioned the challenges that the United States is facing regarding inmates’ mental health. The management of prison communities isn’t just an African problem, but a worldwide one. Only a few countries have managed to address it well.

In Africa, there are not many models we can look to. Rwanda has progressed a lot although many issues and stumbling blocks remain. Interestingly, in 2014, the African Journal of Criminology and Justice ranked the Ugandan system as the best in Africa. Uganda has the third best recidivism rate in the entire world, and the best in Africa. The Commissioner General of Prisons of Uganda most recently chaired the African Correctional Services Association, and Uganda’s correctional services was voted the best in Africa. Uganda is not perfect, but the government is committed to being better.

Are there any plans to expand APP’s focus beyond East Africa?
We are currently working on our four-year strategy, and we are looking at how we can scale our programs elsewhere across the continent. At the next stage, we see ourselves offering these programs to prison services so they can adopt low-cost services funded by their own governments.

Can volunteers get involved in APP?
We have a volunteering scheme, and we’re expecting about eight volunteers this year from Europe and Africa. Volunteers typically spend three or more months with us. If you would like to find out more, please email info@africanprisons.org.