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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

Behind the Bars: Kigo (Chee-go) Prison

By Nwadiuto (DT) Amajoyi

As we drive up the path towards the prison, it's a little piece of Eden. It's gorgeous! The path leading up to the prison boasts a backdrop of the beautiful Lake Victoria (the largest body of water in Uganda). The water was so blue and the landscape so green that I almost forgot where we were headed. It felt a bit odd for such beauty to be the precursor of the dread we were sure to encounter at the prison. One would think this was the path towards paradise, not a prison!

Kigo prison was a minimum security prison. As we arrived at the gates of the prison we were admitted with very few questions. I'm pretty sure we just dropped the name of our program director and we were allowed entry. I could let this be a sign of alarm (that anyone can just get in and maybe out of prison), but I decided to let it go. I learned to do this a lot in Uganda. You have to do this otherwise you go crazy worrying about all the things that could go wrong at any given time. Once inside the prison we waited outside of the main building. We waited for just under an hour, after which we were invited into a meeting with the Principle Judge. This was the first time we had seen him on our trip. He's a big deal. The head of the prison presented data regarding the prison to the judge as others in the room (judicial officers, government officials, staff, etc.) listened and asked questions. The prison official rattled off a lot of numbers but I took note of the prison capacity. Kigo Prison was meant to house 400 inmates (it is a small prison), but it currently housed 1400 inmates! I couldn't believe it. I wondered how this was sustainable. It wasn't. There were many concerns raised about the prisons capacity.

Once we were finished with the meeting we began a tour of the prison. In order to get into the main part of the prison you had to go through this door that was hardly tall enough for me to walk through standing up, and I'm only 5'6''; you had to duck down to enter. I gathered this was used to prevent an easy escape through the prison entrance. The conditions the prisoners lived in were relatively clean (for an African prison), but they were far from comfortable. The inmates slept on hard concrete floors, topped with mats. All of the water that I saw (drinking, cooking, bathing) was this yellowish bile color and was contained in bathtubs that were clearly out of place. The outdoor kitchen consisted of two or three giant fire pits. The inmates cooked in bulk and I think I remembered from the presentation earlier that a couple inmates would be assigned cooking duties for the entire prison. Again the water used in the kitchen was the color of bile. Seeing this made me angry as I thought to myself, "certainly they deserve clean drinking and cooking water!"

We continued the tour of the prison as we saw a computer center (mostly younger inmates here). The computer room was pretty sad with its minimal amount of learning materials. These kids were still developing. Then we went to a room full of hand woven baskets, trays, purses, and animals. The prisoners made these. It was a way for them to maybe pass the time but they also got paid (the guards held the money for them) anytime someone bought one of the items they made. I thought that was pretty cool, and they were beautiful! Once we finished the tour of the prison I thought we would head home, but to my surprise we were headed straight for the stage at the center of the prison.

You see, the whole time we were touring the prison, the inmates were watching us intently as we moved from room to room. On the other side of the prison there was a prison ministry going on. The inmates had set up tents and sat on the dirt floor beneath them. The female prisoners had also come over from their prison to the men's prison, they sat in front of the stage. As our tour group walked past these tents we then began to snake through the prisoners (they made way for us) and onto the stage. As the prison official made an introduction of the judicial officers, I realized that we were here for a makeshift plea bargaining conference. The judicial officials then took turns explaining to the inmates what plea bargaining is, the rules of participation, and general advice. What happened next was amazing, the inmates then performed skits for the crowd (other inmates) to demonstrate how a plea bargaining session would take place. I thought this was awesome because it showed that they were engaged in the program.

As we sat there in the middle of the prison, the gravity of the moment became clear to me… we were surrounded on all sides by inmates. A 360° view would reveal a sea of orange and yellow uniformed inmates who had committed heinous crimes. The inmates wearing orange were sentenced to terms of 10+ years, while those in yellow were sentenced to less than 10yrs. Despite this perceived danger that quite literally encompassed us…I felt safe. That's something I felt at every single prison we visited. The inmates were respectful, practically subservient, and in many instances kind.

As I absorbed the moment, I looked out into the sea of inmates. Holding back tears, I then looked upon their beautiful, black as the midnight sky bodies, and looked into their yellow eyes as they seemed to search for hope, forgiveness, and freedom.