Have you ever spent a night sleeping while standing? Not just one night, but many nights. And not just standing in a free space but compressed together with other people in a small space, body against body? And not because that is your preferred sleeping position, but because there is no space on the floor to sleep. And not that those on the floor are sleeping in any better condition because usually they are sleeping on a cold, hard and bare surface?
Well, that is how over 28,000 inmates in Ugandans prisons spend their nights – standing because of the overcrowded prisons. Just in case you didn’t know, Uganda has 217 prisons and 45,092 prisoners and there are prisons whose current inmate load is beyond 500%! These include Kisoro which stands at 906%, Ntungamo at 720% and Rukingiri at 530%! Uganda’s prison capacity, ie the number of prisoners we are able to accommodate in the current prisons is only 16,040, so at 45,000 inmates (and growing), that is more than double the capacity.
On top of this overwhelming number, prisons are perpetually underfunded. While Uganda Prisons Service had requested 50 billion shillings to feed and house the current inmates this financial year, Ministry of Finance was only able to allocate them 23 billion shillings, which is less than half the money they requested.
These figures are indeed mind boggling and they beg many questions about our penal system, the first being how our numbers got there in the first place? Why are we incarcerating so many people? Who are these people? What is their profile? How many men, how many women? Why are they in prison? Is prison the only answer, the only way to address crime in Uganda? How does Uganda Prisons Service manage the perpetual underfunding? How do they address the budget shortfalls? How do they manage the disease and potential for prison breaks that comes with overcrowding? How are we stemming the flow of the prison population?
These questions lead me back to one I have been asking myself over the last couple of days about whether and why we need more districts in Uganda as the ‘answer’ to service delivery deficits. I think prison officials must cry when they hear that Government is going to borrow over 1.4 trillion shillings to set up new districts. This money will not help address the challenges that prisons are currently facing.
Prisons are given the last and least attention probably because the people they serve are hidden from view. But these are Ugandans we are talking about, Ugandans that are entitled to basic minimum rights as prisoners including the right to accommodation that meets the requisite requirements for health.
We cannot let this situation go on like this. We must stand up for those that stand as they sleep.