The Parents – Ugandan Prisons
by Rebecca Ginsburg, EJP Director
September 24, 2013
I visited this prison today—Luriza Maximum Security Prison in Kampala, Uganda. Our group spent about three hours in the condemned men’s section, where about 375 men on death row live, separated by the general population and distinguished by their white striped uniforms (others wear yellow). Uganda hasn’t had an execution in many years, but it still has the death penalty. So it was striking to see the spirit of the place. The men had glowing eyes and spoke earnestly of hope and faith and love. Much of this is due to the work of Wells of Hope.
Wells of Hope provides free education to children of incarcerated parents. A committee of incarcerated men actually review the applications filled out by the men and decide whose sons and daughters should be sent to the Wells of Hope residential school. (There’s a preference for daughters, since they’re disadvantaged due to their gender.) Uganda is like the United States in this respect: the people behind bars come disproportionately from the poorer classes. When a breadwinner is incarcerated, the entire family suffers. There’s no welfare safety net. The condition of families left behind in Uganda is dire.
One man told us that when he was arrested he left behind a family of 13—2 wives and 11 children between the ages of one and a half and eleven. His mother came to visit him in jail and told him she didn’t know what she was going to do. They were poor and had no resources to fall back on. And then Francis Ssuubi from Wells of Hope visited the prison and, in a meeting with the men on condemned row, offered to take their children in and provide them with education. “How can you pay for tuition for children who aren’t your relatives?” the father queried, incredulous. “Are you mad?” But he went ahead and filled out the form. Now four of his children are being educated by Wells of Hope.
(I didn’t take the above photo. It’s from http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.newvision.co.ug/newvision_cms/gall_content/2012/4/2012_4%24largeimg224_Apr_2012_104920990.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.newvision.co.ug/article/fullstory.aspx?story_id%3D630545%26catid%3D1%26mid%3D53&h=360&w=500&sz=57&tbnid=UQLI6u5BoafXDM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=125&zoom=1&usg=__77n_RNrMRNybCIXibaSd8OMLTnY=&docid=qTwf_klSjPVyZM&sa=X&ei=txRCUq2oFqXH0QWVlICoDA&ved=0CFIQ9QEwBg)
People without experience of life in a poor country might have trouble appreciating the extraordinary significance that being sent to school holds for those who are members of marginalized classes. For example, when I asked the 23 men we met with, how many of them had completed primary school (up to age 12), only 4 raised their hands. Where schooling isn’t free, it’s common for children to drop out to contribute to the family’s income. Add to this the stigma of being the child of an incarcerated man. Family members and neighbors, to the extent they might be moved to assist, may be loathe to contribute to the education of someone considered a social menace. More often, I got the impression today, people intervene in the families’ lives in order to exploit their situation. We heard stories of children of incarcerated parents being made to act as unpaid labor to relatives, being beaten, and sold into slavery. Poor, outcaste children are so vulnerable. School offers both a haven and the promise of a stable future.
Getting a bite to eat in the car between prison visits.
In the afternoon we visited the women’s maximum security prison. It was such a relief to be able to hug and embrace those who gathered to meet with us in the prison library. We sat together on the floor. Then they started to share their stories. They were, predictably, bleak and harrowing and some of the women started to cry. But along with being moved by the frankness of their accounts, I was also impressed, with the women and the incarcerated men both, by the quality of their intellects. For example, in the women’s prison we had a good discussion about the extent to which poverty causes crime. There was no agreement, a healthy sign. People contributed that low educational attainment and lack of ability to handle emotions were also contributing factors. That was insightful, all the more so since it involved self-reflection and not hollow theorizing. They also discussed why it’s not easy for women to leave difficult husbands and identified the biggest challenges of being incarcerated as women.
For these mothers, the pain of having children left at home that they can not protect, in a world that is brutal towards poor children—poor girls, in particular—was exceedingly difficult to bear. I also learned that many live with a strong sense of having been treated unjustly by the police and courts. When I returned to the guest cottage and did some research online, I learned that human rights groups estimate that between 30 and 40% of the incarcerated in Uganda are not guilty of the offense for which they were charged. However, unless someone offers to take up their cases for free, there is little hope that any of their sentences will be overturned. People behind bars in Uganda aren’t even allowed to talk on the telephone. The “welfare worker” acts as intermediary on calls, and by her own admission today said that she sometimes censors the conversations.
Incarcerated men working in the fields.
I could go on…. What I saw today wasn’t different in kind from American prisons, only in degree.
Both men and women tackled the question of why (and whether) education is important. “Education is a source of discipline,” offered one, and another explained that education offers social networks, which are especially valuable to women who might otherwise be isolated at home. You can ask your friends for ideas about jobs, and you can ask them for help if your husband is treating your poorly. “Education helps you to understand what’s going on in the world,” a few agreed. One person suggested that it could improve one’s standard of living. Nobody said directly: it allows you to earn more money. I found that remarkable.
The condemned men kept telling us to “feel at home.” It’s almost a joke isn’t it? Please feel at home here on death row where we receive one meal a day and two men recently died of fumes from the sewage (read story here) and the high stone walls of this prison, built in 1927, separate us from the view of Lake Victoria, just a few miles to the south. But it was far from a joke. It was a blessing to be accepted by them, to see that the bonds that connect us as parents, mothers, people, can exist in spite of all the efforts to keep us apart and that we can come together into spaces of shared humanity and compassion.
But if you think this is going to end up in a rosy declaration about the strength of the human spirit or the power of love, think again. Certainly, we had our kumbaya moments today and I’m the first to enjoy a good kumbaya. But I don’t feel settled and calm tonight. I’m angry and sore at heart.
Tomorrow we visit the boarding school that the parents’ children attend. I expect that will be heartwarming. Wells of Hope is a godsend to the incarcerated men and women who can now fall asleep knowing that their children aren’t hungry, abused, alone, or scared. And that’s not all. They receive a good education in the bargain. Now how much would you pay?