By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
After the US-based Human Rights Watch published a report on torture, deplorable health conditions and forced labour in Uganda’s prisons, The Independent’s Mubatsi Asinja Habati spoke about it with Uganda Prisons Service Commissioner General, Dr Johnson Byabashaija.
A report by an international organization, Human Rights Watch accuses the force that you manage of arbitrary use of forced labour for personal gain and income generation. Why is this happening?
I allowed Human Rights Watch into the prisons to find out what was happening. I and my team will assess the report and the situation and make adjustments. The report says this is rampant in rural based prisons which were formerly Local administration prisons and I think some of those things are happening because they have not attained the level we want. Some of these prisons have not yet been integrated in terms of giving them transport to take prisoners to court, giving them infrastructure, and imprest. So you find such practices. Otherwise the report notes some improvements especially in those prisons that are urban-based. We shall soon stream that improvement to the local rural prisons as well. Forced labour is unacceptable.
Are you aware forced labour exists in prisons?
That surprises me because I have regional and district prisons commanders and the Prisons Inspectorate which is supposed to supervise. I am surprised that this has not come to me. I am going to follow up the issue.
One issue that keeps coming up is overcrowding in prisons. What are you doing about it?
Most security prisons were designed to have 600 people but have three times that number. We are definitely overcrowded but we are building prisons to resolve this in Nakasongola, Moroto, Gulu, Kiboga, Bushenyi, and Mbarara. But you should know that this overcrowding is a result of slow criminal justice and I hear there is something being done about that.
The report talks about sick prisoners being denied access to health services. Why is this so?
There may be a prisoner who falls and there might not be a health worker at that prison to refer that prisoner. We only have 51% coverage of health workers in our prisons, so we need competent people to refer prisoners who are sick. It now depends on the officer in-charge to determine if a person is sick and whether to take him or her to a nearby dispensary or hospital. That’s definitely not good. I wish all prisons had health workers. But you should note that the mortality of inmates has greatly reduced over the last five years. If things were as bad as they are being portrayed, we should expect the mortality to increase. We have six doctors serving our prisons but when you calculate their ratio to 30,000 inmates, isn’t that a good ratio compared to the national one? Our problem is that we need to screen every person who enter our prisons for HIV/AIDS and TB and if we are able to do that the mortality rate will go down drastically.
But the report is accusing the warders of brutality towards prisoners; making prisoners work under slave-like conditions which it says has in some cases led to death like in Mubuku in 2009.
It surprises me that my inspectorate system and people at the regional level are not telling me anything like that. But this is not happening in Luzira. My challenge is to be able to change that attitude. We will investigate these allegations. But the same report talks of hard labour. What do they mean by that? Is digging hard labour? People who are cultivating vegetables for their own consumption, growing their own food, really is that hard labour?
The issue is that prisoners are most of the time digging for the benefit of individual prisons officers.
I have to find that out and deal with it. Our Prisons Rules and Regulations are being completed by the Parliamentary Council, which will match the 2006 Prisons Act. Once those rules are out, I will also make my own standing orders as head of the institution to guide on how prison labour should be used and obtained. If any officer in charge uses prison labour for his own benefit, he will pay dearly. That is corruption. In Prisons Service we will take your Shs 500 coin as you enter, we keep it for you and give it back when you get out. We are one of the few institutions which can still do that. If someone tries to destroy this record, we will not accept.
What is your assessment of this report by Human Rights Watch on the institution you lead?
It is actually hitting me below the belt. You know I am a very proud man as far as the rights of inmates is concerned. I have been proud of the record of improved human rights in prisons. The way the prisoners used to look 20 years ago it is not the same way today. I am very concerned about the contents of this report and I will act on them. But there are some things we can do and others which we can’t. It will take time to build facilities like the one in Nakasongola across the country.
What do you say about torture of inmates where the report says a prisoner was beaten to a point where his buttocks got “rotten” and failed to sit?
That is very unfortunate if it happened. That is not acceptable to us. That prisoner was brought from upcountry and was receiving treatment from Murchison Bay. That officer must be brought to book. We don’t have torture as a service. We have to take such officers to police to be charged in court. We are training these officers about respect for human rights and with time such reports will be unheard of.