By Nigel Nassar
THE fortress of Luzira Upper Prison, a facility keeping up to 2,400 capital offenders, opened its high gates to the charity team I was part of. The inmates, who are serving their sentence in the maximum prison for murder, treason, rape, defilement and aggravated robbery, were all smiles, upon receiving Easter goodies, including scholastic materials.
John Kagambo, the Upper Prison senior welfare officer, said education, which is part of inmatesâ€™ rehabilitation in Uganda, has existed since independence (1962). â€œItâ€™s just that then, it was informal. Inmates would only be talked to on matters like hygiene, discipline and commitment to God,â€ says Kagambo.
Education at Luzira was formalised in 2000, the time the upper prisonâ€™s administration was allowed by the education ministry to start up a school within its high-walled domain, and given a Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) centre for primary, ordinary and advanced levels.
Because many inmates are school dropouts, the Luzira Upper Prison schools carried out enrolment for all classes. Those who had never been to school but were interested, were started off with functional adult literacy (reading and writing) in P.1.
A summary of UNEB results for the last nine years indicates the centre has graduated 255 inmates at primary level, 224 ordinary level and 152 advanced level. Though some have passed well, others have not, for the troubles a schooling inmate faces are many.
Locked up, some of them on death row; the inmates still go to school anyway â€” a nagging fear of death eating slowly at the nerves of those awaiting their own demise at an unknown date. How disheartening it gets, only they can tell for they are the ones who, while piling up class notes daily, suffer the thought of their impending death â€” death by a hangmanâ€™s noose.
Kagambo says imminent death is one of the biggest dilemmas schooling death row inmates in the prison have to contend with every passing second. Close to 800 inmates (33%) of the entire prisonâ€™s population are going to school â€” about 500 in primary and 300 in secondary. Though those on death row are many, they take up an undisclosed lower percentage against the overall schooling inmates on other sentences.
Many of them bark off school because they know they are going to die anytime. The few who are in school were encouraged by Kagambo and his welfare team, and are now optimistic that one day, President Yoweri Museveni might exercise the presidential prerogative of mercy and forgive them, or commute their sentences to life imprisonment.
â€œMaybe all is not doom for them. That is why we encourage that while serving their sentence, they should get an education, which would help them when out of here,â€ reasons Kagambo, who usually gets into one-on-one chats with the inmates while handling their complaints.
I stole a moment with an inmate on death row, asking the forbidden question â€” why were you imprisoned? â€œThey said I was guilty of murder. I am now waiting to die,â€ said the inmate who, for fear of being marked, could not disclose his name. In fact, he was isolated, as if not wanting his misery interrupted by a passing moment of fun, the reason he looked irritated on seeing me approach.
He attends primary school for the sake of passing time. He is not in the least thrilled about school. Half his time in school is spent pondering questions like: â€œWhat is education for if I am going to die anytime?â€ â€œHow much longer do I have alive?â€ But he continues attending class, hoping he is not picked up in the middle of a lesson to be hanged.
The inmates usually do not know when execution is to happen. It happens when the president has signed the death warrant. Prison records indicate that at least 377 people have been executed by hanging since 1938, the last execution being that of 1999, in which 28 were hanged.
The fear of death aside, the prison lacks professional teachers. Students sit the same UNEB exams done by other candidates countrywide. The prisoners also need good living conditions and a constant supply of scholastic materials. To teach in the primary section, your minimum qualification should be S.3.
The primary section is privileged for it has some professional Grade Three teachers. To teach in the secondary section, you must have gone up to Aâ€™ level.
But since prisoners are serving their sentence for wrongdoing (not necessarily because some are victims of circumstances), they cannot insist on cake when given bread. And their bread, in this case, is fellow inmates who voluntarily act as teachers, and who studied up to a certain level either before imprisonment or they got the qualification from the prison schools after imprisonment.