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Good deeds in Uganda prisons come at a price

By Ariel Rubin

In the office-cum-waiting room of the African Prison Project (APP) house in Luzira, a big green poster board is plastered with photographs of groundbreaking ceremonies and newspaper clippings extolling the many achievements of the NGO and its 24-year-old founder and Director General, Alexander McLean. Also, emblazoned is a reproduction of the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims that everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration. This seems especially salient noting the recent controversy over the APP-financed and supervised construction of the new Level Two Medical Centre in the Gulu Main Prison and the allegations of forced and unpaid use of prisoners to build it.

The African Prisons Project began as the brainchild of McLean, a young English magistrate, who first came to Uganda in 2004 on a gap year before entering university. What was meant to be a two-week volunteer opportunity with a local hospice quickly turned into six months. In an interview with The Independent, McLean, wearing a dapper mustache and pinstripe suit, remembers going to Mulago Hospital for the first time and being especially struck by the fetid conditions of the patients ward. I saw a lot of people lying on the floor, it stank, it was completely different from anything I had seen before, McLean recalls. I spent three months there with people with AIDS and tuberculosis who were dying. Id bathe and feed them and try to get blankets and sheets, and be their advocate with doctors and nurses. I saw many prisoners handcuffed to their bed. There was a problem of prisoners dying of starvation in the hospital, they couldnt get any drugs. It was filthy; some of the patients would have maggots on them. It was really challenging stuff.

It was there that the African Prisons Project was born, becoming a registered charity in 2007 and completing a number of projects that renovated and refurbished health care centres and libraries in Uganda, Kenya and Sierra Leone. APP has garnered much praise and numerous accolades including winning a UK Charity Award in 2006. However the APPs latest project, the health centre in Gulu Main Prison set to open in February, has been mired in controversy over allegations from former employees of forced prison labour and admissions that those prisoners who did much of the manual labour were not financially compensated. These issues have highlighted some of the problems inherent in NGO-government cooperation and called into question the judgment of the APPs young Director General.

No one denies that the Level Two Health Centre will be a major boon for both the prisoners and employees of the prison in Gulu. As Uganda Prisons Service Principal Medical Officer Dr Michael Kyomya explained, infrastructure development is the biggest challenge for the cash-strapped prisons service. While the resource-constrained government has made much progress in recent years, there remain significant problems in addressing the medical and palliative needs of the prison population. For Kymoya, The public-private partnership, as we have with APP in the area of infrastructure development, is amazing and it must be applauded by everyone because with the government it is not possible.

With a budget of Shs142 million, the APP-funded project will provide a clean, safe environment with adequate medical facilities to deal with pervasive problems like malaria, cholera and typhoid. According to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the APP and Uganda Prisons Service (UPS), the APP will avail the funds, construct and supervise construction of the facility. The UPS, will among other things, put at disposal the unskilled labour work for offloading, earth moving, digging, cleaning and backfilling purposes. In other words, the MOU requires the UPS to provide the workers to do the manual labour, regardless of their volition. Furthermore, what is not elucidated is by what means these prisoners would be compensated for their work.

According to the UNs Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, there shall be a system of equitable remuneration of the work of prisoners. Additionally, the full normal wages for such work shall be paid to the administration by the persons to whom the labour is supplied. When queried as to how prisoners were compensated for their work, McLean responded that they were provided a meal.  He explained that it was quite problematic to compensate prisoners financially as you are working in an environment where prison staff makes very little money. Money isnt allowed in prisons. Its helping to meet prisoners with their material needs and we always give them things like razors or soap and tea leaves, in addition to full support.

According to Dr Kyomya, prisoners provided the casual labour; but he was uncertain if they had been remunerated. He quickly went on to note that the real issue however was one of community participation and giving the prisoners a sense of ownership of the new facility. For Kyomya, the health sector in this country doesnt promote the concept of reward especially when what you are contributing to will, directly, benefit the prisoners. He went on to say, Even if the APP didnt pay the prisoners, Im expressing a personal opinion, it wouldnt really hurt me so much because the infrastructure is going to directly benefit the prisoners, for obvious reasonsand them offering a little bit of casual effort and contributing to that process in itself is really good enough in my view.

The project to build the health centre also involved a third party, Sem Investments Ltd, an engineering firm contracted by the APP to do the actual construction. A spokesman from the company categorically denied the use of prisoners in any part of the building process. He did however admit that “prisoners were supposed to work with us but it was not cheap to use them, so we used locals in Gulu.” Clearly, a system of financial compensation for services rendered had been discussed but for one reason or another, was never implemented.

McLean contends that the provision of a meal was adequate compensation and that allegations of unpaid and even forced labour are completely senseless. “Why would we want to bring about more hardship for them? There’s nothing for us to gain from doing that. Providing inmates with remuneration  for the work they’re doing, if it’s giving them food support, it doesn’t cost a great deal of money, still it’s in line with our mission to give them dignity and hope. We don’t need to exploit prisoners to serve other prisoners.” In an email leaked to The Independent, McLean writes that he “wasn’t aware of the exact provisions of the Gulu MOU”, a document he signed and approved. However he “expected inmates to do semi-skilled as well as unskilled work and believe that it is crucial that inmates gain skills from the work they do on the project for us.”

A bigger problem seems to be the underlying confusion and tension over accepting responsibility for the project. When asked why APP as a third-party did not provide compensation, McLean explained that the prisoners were working for the Prison Service, not the APP as a third party. “It’s not a health centre that we’re going to run. They’re doing work for the Prisons Service. We act as the ones that are providing the money for the Prison Service but this isn’t going to be the African Prisons Project health centre, this is the UPS health centre.” However, the Memorandum of Understanding signed by McLean states that one of APP’s primary responsibilities is to “supervise the construction of the infrastructure”.

The tremendous accomplishments of the APP in Uganda should not be understated, with the provision of infrastructure installations in previously decrepit facilities certainly helping to restore the dignity and humanity to Uganda’s beleaguered prison population. The health and education initiatives funded and spurred on by the NGO have given a voice to this deeply marginalized group in Uganda. Rather, the problems surrounding the Gulu Health Centre reflect a deeper dilemma implicit in the partnership of Western NGOs and the Ugandan government. The worry over the lack of compensation for prisoners and the possibility that some may have been forced to do the labour (a charge categorically denied by McLean who claims there are plenty of those willing to do the work on a voluntary basis, but admits he “can’t say for sure that there’s been no forced labour”) are important in bringing about scrutiny over the lack of accountability for NGOs aiming to do the work an underfunded government ministry cannot. Two former employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, assert that McLean was indeed made aware during meetings last year of concerns that prisoners were being forced to provide manual labour to build the medical centre and yet no remedial action was taken.

A May 2009 email written by APP trustee Diana Opio, obtained by The Independent, reveals the internal conflict that beset the NGO over the remuneration concerns. She noted, “Human rights are a western construction, and there has been much debate as to the relevance of the far reaching aspects of human rights in an African context.  Issues of rights really come from and encourage individualism, whereas in Africa the system is more community based, and we should think about what is right for the community above that of the individual.  I am not saying that human rights are not important, they are, but we need to apply them appropriately.”

The problem inherent in the communitarian argument, made by both the APP and the government, is that it sounds like a whitewash seeming to undermine the very purpose of the rights-based NGO in the first place. It leaves some critics worried that the APP could be violating human rights in order to save them.  Opio’s community-based argument that payment of prisoners would create problems like jealousy amongst the prison population and excessive individualism underscores the tensions in importing Western money and ideals and implementing them in a different context. Furthermore, one former employee claims that the ‘human rights-are-culturally-relative’ argument by Opio and McLean was little more than an excuse to save face and money. Allegedly, McLean refused to remunerate prisoners even after several members of staff complained during meetings about the dubious ethicality of such practice.

Finally, the argument flagrantly ignores the set international standards and guidelines to which any responsible NGO should adhere. Operating within a cumbersome bureaucracy where corruption is endemic, NGOs must still stick to a strict code of ethical practice in order to ensure full transparency and accountability. Although the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules are not legally binding, they do set out to provide a guideline for international and domestic law.  The possibility that an NGO, which aims to provide for prisoners’ rights, would in fact infringe upon some of those same rights in one of its projects is something that has many critics concerned.

Ultimately, the selective application of human rights standards by a rights-based NGO seems to contradict another prominent poster which hangs on the green poster board in the APP House. It states in bold letters: Individual Prisoners have Individual Rights.

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