The Uganda Prisons Service has reformed over the years and has won praise for the best correctional system for prisoners in Africa. Canon Dr. Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of Prisons spoke to The Independent’s Ronald Musoke about running a human-rights based correctional service.
Uganda’s prisons system has been praised as the best in Africa when it comes to offering correctional programmes. How have you managed to achieve this over the last decade?
It is just commitment from all of us. We are not the most resourced government institution but we became committed to what we were doing because we grew up in the system. My predecessor (the late Joseph Etima) is the one who started reforms not only in Uganda but in Africa. Etima called for a conference here (Kampala) of all commissioners of prisons in Africa in 1996 and they came up with what is called the Kampala Declaration on Prison Conditions in Africa. The Kampala Declaration recognized that prisons in Africa had poor conditions. This was the first reform that Etima advocated for. Then he advocated for the education of inmates. With a little more resources, we improved the system and we are now part of the education system in the country. You cannot miss basic education because you are in prison. Etima was also the first advocate of the humane treatment of prisoners and now I have no major human rights cases. Haven’t you heard prisoners in court saying, ‘take us to Luzira?’ It is unbelievable for inmates to request to go into an institution. It says a lot.
What explains this commitment in Uganda Prisons Service that is so rare these days in public service?
We have always been systematic in whatever we do. The prisons standing orders which we inherited from Her Majesty’s Prisons Service in 1962 have not changed much. The way prisons are managed in the U.K— the systems in place for admission, discharge and rehabilitation are the same. I think we have just perfected them and we have ended up being one of the best correctional services in Africa and the fourth best in the world.We still maintain those systems which are sound systems of management of prisons but for us, we gave it a human face. I can tell you that out of 100 convicted prisoners they give me; only 20 re-offend and come back. This is the best rate of recidivism on the continent and fourth in the world—just behind Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Singapore.
What motivates you to maintain these high standards in Uganda Prisons Service?
I joined Uganda Prisons Service as a young cadet officer from the university in 1983 and I rose through all the ranks to head the institution. I have competent staff that have been recruited on merit. You can never break those people who were recruited on merit. I actually pay tribute to my staff and middle managers; they are recruited on merit, they are competent and we have trained them well. I don’t have an Assistant Commissioner who has not gone through Uganda Management Institute’s Post Graduate Diploma in Public Administration and Management. So I also have competent managers. I have also recruited professionals; electrical, agricultural and mechanical engineers who can do some of these things which we are doing. So nothing in prisons has come by chance.
Tell us about the core values of Uganda Prisons Service?
Once you talk about prisons service, you are talking about discipline. We are the most disciplined uniformed outfit you have in the country. This is why we shall take inmates to court even if it means walking there. Inmates walk to court because I am yet to provide vehicles for all the 254 institutions around the country. But they walk there because we are committed to justice. We are also a very accountable institution. Have you seen our maroon vehicles? There is no vehicle which leaves a station to go to another without a marching order. That is why we have almost unequalled maintenance of vehicles. I can proudly say that we have never had ghost staff in prisons. My officers in the field have to make a staff casualty return every week. They tell me how many staff they have and where they are deployed and every month a nominal roll is sent to the headquarters to verify all these things. Those things we have maintained and that is what makes us Prisons. These are the values I am talking about: discipline, accountability, and unity.