By Sarah Namulondo
Visiting `Prisoner Number One’ gives a rare glimpse into the dreaded maximum security prison
The day abnormally hot and the unbearable rays forced a friend and me to take shelter in the shade opposite a fuel station in the Bugolobi suburb of Kampala City, along Luzira-Port Bell Road.
We were meeting someone, technically called a source in journalism, who had information about a story we were writing. Cars sped by until, finally, I got the call I had been waiting for. I was directed to the black Mercedes Benz limousine which was parked at the petrol station.
I crossed the road in haste and entered the all tinted black limousine and a blast of cold air from the AC hit me. It was a relief. If the temperatures were different, so was the mood.
My source turned around with a grin on his face and said “well am going to visit my friend Mike, so you can interview me on the way to Luzira”.
I nodded in agreement. Little did I know that the said `friend’ had now become the famous `Prisoner Number One’.
The limousine bumped up and down the dusty road in the direction of Luzira Prisons. When we reached the first security check, the driver rolled down the glasses and a bad stench filled the car which we later found out was from the drainage system which was behind the security check.
A prison warden only known as Opio walked towards the car with a peculiar smile on his face. He lowered his head and asked, “Are you going to visit Prisoner Number One?”
“Yes,” our driver replied and Opio punched the air with his fist in celebration.
“I knew it!” he said as if the guessing challenge had won for him some unclear victory. He looked pretty excited.
He directed us to another security check where we were supposed to get passes to go through the prison.
The car stopped again and we got out for the tedious process of registering for passes. The registration process included leaving behind everything ranging from phones, cameras, wallets, and all sorts of things.
From the registration office we entered another office where we were subjected to thorough checks.
“Why are you wearing a trouser,” Akello, a prison warden asked me. I told her I had come from work to Luzira and I did not know that trousers were forbidden.
She looked at me and said, “The whole you?”
Then, for Shs 1000, she gave me a wrapper to hire. I put it around my trouser and I walked away fully covered for the task a head because trousers, I was told, “affect male inmates”.
Back in the car, we drove along a winding road into the reputed dejected abyss of despair and anxiety.
Welcome to the `city’
I was thrown aback. From the inside, Luzira Maximum Security Prison is a town on its own, exuding vibrancy with its shops, a nursery school, and a hospital.
Although the buildings are decayed with age, lots of people; from the wardens to the prisoners, wore happy faces.
When the car stopped, the prison warden who offered to direct us showed us the gate where Soroti Municipality MP, George Michael Mukula, is held. My source quickly walked to the gate. He asked that we be let through immediately.
But the warden at the gate informed us that Mukula had along list of visitors and he suggested we wait for 15 minutes or so. My source seemed unsettled and his attention remained glued on the gate.
It was like his life depended on a stop watch, after 10 minutes, he could not wait any longer and walked toward the prison warden again and told her he could not wait any more.
I believe the reason he gave the warden was valid enough to let us go through the prison gates leaving a number of people in the queue.
Once inside the gate we were subjected to another process of registration before being assigned a prison warden to direct us.
We walked passed the first common prison visiting area to the VIP section where we met Mukula attending to other visitors.
On seeing my source, it was like a bolt of joy struck him. He stood up and gave him a bear’s hug; he held him tightly and later let go and hugged us too.
It was the same old Mukula, his smile still as beguiling as it was on the day of his sentence. The man who has for decades been a fixture on Uganda’s political, business, a social scene, with his signature sharp suits, boyish good looks, and debonair deportment even managed to look sharp in his well pressed and free fitting yellow V-collar prison uniform and matching yellow shorts and moccasins. I thought the way the uniform looked on Mukula could make some Ugandan designers turn their creativity around the uniform. It’s a pity prison regulations could not let me take his photo.
Mukula was warm and spoke confidently. Prison life has, apparently, not dented his image of authority. When his other visitors said they were leaving, Mukula saw them off and returned promptly to us.
“This time round you have represented your party well,” my source said in a joke at Mukula’s uniform. Yellow is the colour of the NRM party for which Mukula is the National Vice Chairman for Eastern region. Mukula joined in the fun and banter.
“I have never represented my party like I do now,” he said, “Every single morning I wake up to the best opportunity there is of representing my party, my country and finding ways in which to improve the prison life”.
The whole time Mukula kept on pointing at his uniform in cross reference to the colour of the uniform to the NRM party colour.
I quickly noticed that on his table lay a book titled “The road back home”. I could not see the name of the author because it was a little away from me. That book clearly showed where his enthusiasm was coming from.
His tone quickly softened and a wave of emotion poured in when he talked about the current state of Luzira Prisons. His demeanor was calm and collected as he took us through the sad and unfair prison stories.
He talked of the poor sleeping conditions; he said the building capacity of Luzira was initially for 300 prisoners but now it holds 1,672 prisoners as of Feb. 7.
“Prison is a place where criminals are supposed to be rehabilitated but with such numbers it is hard for the wardens to interact with them one on one,” Mukula noted.
“My people in the contained part of the prison are suffering because they are not really charged but they end up spending more time in prison than needed.”
He told us a story of an inmate who was sentenced to 18 years in Luzira Prison for murder but, 10 years into the sentence, the man he was accused of having murdered re-appeared.
“Who do you blame,” Mukula, who is appealing his own innocence asked, “The judges or the system?”
The Anti-corruption court recently found Mukula guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison for embezzling Shs210 million from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) funds when he minister of state for Health in 2005. Mukula is appealing in the High Court.
The case has become controversial because court acquitted Mukula’s three co-accused, who by ethnicity, kinship, and marriage, are closely linked to President Yoweri Museveni.
When Mukula kept on quoting the law and different sections of the Penal Code Act, my source appeared to be thrown off balance.
“When did you start quoting the law like that?” the source asked Mukula.
Mukula said catching up on the law has given him more knowledge on his case and those of “his people” meaning his fellow inmates.
Mukula told us that during day when you see the Luzira inmates, you assume they have enough space but that’s not the case when you visit at night. A small cubicle will house 900 prisoners with some sleeping while standing and those who have the luxury to seat do not have the privilege to fold or turn about in their sleep.
I bet the president, the judges and all the responsible people have not visited this place in the night but if they do I believe something will be done.
You could clearly see he looked at Luzira as a constituency on its own as he kept on referring to the prisoners as “my people”.
“My people need liberating,” he said.
At the end of our visit my source looked at his friend and said: “Hope you will be released today.”
“That would be great,” Prisoner Number One replied.