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Prison tales of torture, forced labour

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published a stinging 80-page report listing the deplorable conditions Uganda’s inmates endure in congested in cells; sometimes sleeping hungry, in turns, moreover on bare floor covered with lice-infested blankets.

The report details how they must work in the gardens all day as fellow prisoners called Katikiro, whip them if they pause, complain of sickness, or are too weak to work.

“If you say you’re sick, the warden just kicks you and says, “Even dead bodies must work,” a prisoner at Muduuma Prison tells HRW.

“Prisoners in Uganda, many not convicted of any crime, are brutally beaten and forced to work under conditions resembling slavery,” says Katherine Todrys, the Health and Human Rights researcher at HRW, “Few prisoners with HIV or TB get adequate health care, risking their lives and the development and spread of drug-resistant strains.”


In the report, which Dr Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of Uganda Prisons Service described as “hard-hitting”, prisoners described how beatings in some instances caused loss of consciousness, partial loss of hearing, and broken limbs.

A prisoner, who had been admitted at Muchison Bay Prison from one of rural prisons, described how a warden had been beaten him so badly that he was unable to walk for a month.  Another prisoner also at Muchison Bay Prison recalled how a prisoner was beaten at a farm prison:

“They caned him, and he fell sick. The whole buttocks was rotten. In the ward where I was sleeping, you feel like dying; he lay on the floor crying. This boy received no treatment. But the smell was too much. After some time, we went to the OC’s office, and said, “We are not going anywhere. We need our colleague to get treatment.” The OC reached the door [of the ward], and smelled the stench, and saw the flies. He said the man should get treatment.

But even after treatment, he still could not sit. He was totally rotten.”

The prisoners say they were beaten if they lagged behind others in their work, if they said they were sick, if they made errors in their work, and if they straightened up to stretch their backs.

Only 15 percent of prisoners who told HRW they had suffered a health problem as a result of a beating had received treatment.

“A prisoner at Masafu, experienced a beating so severe that his hand was broken, but the prison warden who beat him would not allow him to go to the hospital,” says the report.

At some prisons like Munaina Farm Prison more brutal punishments, like burning with dried grass fire, was administered.

“If this happens then it is unfortunate,” says Byabashaija, the Prisons boss, “We don’t condone such acts. I have always told prisons officers that anyone who mistreats a prisoner will be arrested and we have many in police cells.”

Byabashaija blames the 2006 Prisons Act that amalgamated local administration prisons (LAPs), which are mainly rural-based and are the ones brewing this trouble because of their poorly trained personnel, with the central government prisons.  Indeed, the HRW report is based on interviews with 163 inmates and 30 warders from 16 of the 223 prisons in the country, where majority of the 16 sampled prisons were rural based.

Forced labour

The report titled “Even the Dead Must Work”, which was published on July 14, says the judiciary’s failure to clear the case backlog is contributing much to the suffering of prisoners. The prison officers take advantage of this to rent out inmates as labour at private farms for personal aggrandizement. It says 51% of prisoners are on remand and have never been tried.

“Prisoners plead guilty just to know their date of release,” the report says in its opening paragraph.

The prisoners interviewed by the HRW researchers said after working in the private gardens under scorching sun or sometimes under rain the wardens are paid between Shs 50,000 and Shs 100,000 for which they never get any share.

“Vulnerable prisoners, including children, the sick, elderly, and pregnant women are also beaten and forced to work,” reads part of the report.

International laws like those by the UN’s International Labour Organisation which Uganda ratified, spell out the standards of how prison labour should be used. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the United Nations as guidance, says prison labour must not be of an afflictive but rather of a vocational nature, and prisoners should be allowed to choose the type of work they wish to perform. The work must not be driven by financial profit motives. No prisoner, whether remand or convict, should be forced to work for private entities, such as private landowners. When working for the government, only convicts and not remands may work, and they must be medically assessed to see if they are fit and healthy for work, they must be treated and remunerated fairly on terms close to what free workers receive, they should be male and between the ages of 18 and 45, and may not work more than 60 days a year. Currently, Ugandan prisons do not comply with any of these international standards, says the report.

Much as the government in 2003 condemned as illegal and exploitative the use of prisoners on private farms, the practice has persisted.

HRW said prison officers admitted that they need the income generated from prisoners labour to survive. Some prisons officers told HRW that they get Shs 150,000 from headquarters per month to run the prisons which is never enough.

“Labor is not part of their sentence. Labor is just an activity that we subject them to for us to be able to keep them and rehabilitate them somehow,” a prison officer said. There are 223 prison facilities in the country operating on an annual budget of over Shs 40 billion.

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