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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

Things are Different in Uganda - Mwiynaina Prison Farm

Mwiynaina Prison Farm
20 kilometers outside Mubende, Uganda
May 20, 2014

Correspondent: Andrew Goldsmith

Julius is well-spoken, honest and welcoming. He is also a convict at Mwiynaina Prison Farm. He is my guide around the prison. My only guide and escort; the two of us, surrounded by murders, rapists, and thieves. Things are different here in Uganda.

Julius walks me past the hut that is the medical clinic. He shows me the giant metal cauldrons, streaming wood smoke, that cook all the convict's meals. Prisoners toil in the smokehouse, dripping sweat. How do they breathe? Julius explains how the inedible scraps are fed to the pigs. Leftovers, when there are any, are stowed in the smokehouse overnight. Food is precious and cannot be wasted; never know when it'll run out. The latrines, the source of the sharp smell of human excrement that periodically wafts over the prison, speak for themselves.

Julius brings me inside the five wards that house the prisoners at night. Many men lie around on the foam pads arranged in neat rows on the concrete floor. Six-thirty at night the doors are locked for twelve hours, the prisoners all locked inside. There are no windows.  The men, piled on top of each other, endure the suffocating heat of dozens and dozens of writhing human bodies.

"This ward supposed to house 100. . . house 212 prisoners."

"This one supposed to house 25 prisoners . . . 58 prisoners inside."

"This one, too . . . 100 inmates. Now, 236. Very hot."

Mwiynaina prison farm has no roof, no cells, no shackles; the prisoners commune with the endless East African Sky. They are kissed by rain; they can hear the birds chirp. One sees endless vistas of cloud-wreathed mountains, grassland savannahs, and green fields. The prison ground itself has several trees, the tallest one immediately in front of the prison entrance and guard quarters. Cranes, chickens, and dogs wander inside the fences topped with barbed wire. A lone dog wanders through the gate, lies lazily in the sun.

No one dreams of escape, assaulting a guard, or even talking to the strange Americans who have unexpectingly interrupted the run of the one long, endlessly repeating prison day. The inmates of Mwiynaina work farm are docile, listless and largely silent. Those that aren't involved in the work of prison-camp life sit on their haunches and stare into space. Some banter friendly with guards who are not armed; they too saunter around listlessly, staring off into space.

I am alone in the midst of what must be over 700 Ugandan prisoners. They are hideously poor. Most of them do not speak English, the official language of the realm, many do not read. They are clothed in rags; half don't have shoes of any kind. Some are petty criminals: land thieves and hustlers. Others are capital offenders: facing a sentence of death for gang rape and murder. I can't tell who is who.

Alone in the midst of Mwiynaina prison. Alone, but for Julius, and yet, there is no fear. Violence is unknown here. An unknown white face clad in a two-piece suit and black dress shoes; surrounded by hard men in rags. And there is no fear.

Things are different here in Uganda.

At the end of the informal tour, Julius tells me he is guilty of his crime. He freely admits it, there is no shame, no expectation of reproach.

"We are here because we have no money. . . don't trust police . . . prisoner wait years to hear their sentence. . . When we get to court, we are let go . . . we do 5 years for 3 year sentences . . . we're not paid for work, rules say we are . . . budget come, we are not paid . . . no books, only Koran and Bible . . . all wards are full, double full and more . . . we are given nothing to be productive . . .

Julius was a businessman. He ran a chemical laboratory, but all his equipment was seized upon his arrest. Julius looks forward to getting a job, slowly saving up enough money for new chemical equipment. Back to work, back on the other side of the fence. . .

Julius is getting out on Friday. He wants my email address, I give it to him. Julius shakes my hand firmly.

"I see you in Kampala?"

Things are different here in Uganda. . . Good luck, Julius.