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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

Just My Opinion And Some Observations Of Ugandan Prisons

Along with the activities in Fort Portal, I got to contribute to the Ugandan justice system in even more unexpected ways while working with Justice Rugadya at the High Court. Throughout the summer my partner Johnny and I spent long hours sitting on a wobbly wooden bench and sweating through our suits during Justice Rugadya's court sessions. While the cases themselves were interesting, the day in and day out of straining to listen to multi-translated witness testimony and the ever-recurring problems with police reports was often pretty difficult. It was all worth it, however, when Justice Rugadya asked us to write opinions for the cases we had been observing all summer. Although reading the case files, which are covered in construction paper and tied together with string, can seem as difficult as listening to it in person, it was such a humbling and exciting experience to be able to contribute some legal analysis to Rugadya's judgments. Even though we were always a little skeptical as to how much of our writing the Judge would actually read, and if any of it was ever correct, Johnny and I were blown away when he not only read our opinions but also used some of them in his own judgments. The wooden bench doesn't seem so uncomfortable when you are listening to a High Court Judge not only agree with your conclusion but even use some of your words when reading aloud the legal judgment for a case. The fact that the Judge had enough confidence in Johnny and I as students to ask us to help him with judgments as well as the fact that some of our analysis was actually correct seemed to make even the year of legal research and writing pain worth it.

One of the last things we did before leaving Uganda was tour some of their largest prisons, which are just outside Kampala. After working in Fort Portal prison for a week I had an idea of what Ugandan prisons were like, but Luzera remand home and the maximum security prison gave me an even clearer understanding of what I think is the Ugandan prison phenomenon. Here are a few things that I noticed that seem to make Ugandan prisons so unique:

  1. The guards and the prisoners get along. Not only are there no issues between guards and prisoners but the prisoners view the guards as a sort of advocate on their behalf.
  2. There is no gang violence. While U.S. prisons tend to experience racially based gang violence and Uganda as a whole does have some discrimination based on tribal background, it does not seem to influence the prison system. Because the Ugandan prisons are so overcrowded, men are packed into open dorm type rooms some with bunk beds, some with mattresses that they role up during the day, and some with just blankets on the hard floors. Even with all of these convicted felons living in extremely close proximity, there are very few guards around and there doesn't seem to be much concern about violence breaking out.
  3. Everyone has a job/role and they all seem to work together. It's a really interesting scenario to walk around a maximum security prison with high walls and barbed wire and yet see prisoners contently making furniture, cleaning the floors, or cooking dinner.

These are just some initial observations from an American law student, so I'm sure there is a lot more going on than I can discover from just one visit. However, from just meeting the prison warden and guards and getting a tour of the facilities it seems like U.S. prison systems could benefit from whatever Uganda is doing that keeps their prisoners so peaceful and helps them see the guards in such a favorable light.