By Obedgiu Samuel
Throughout history, prison labour has been part of the prison system. It is presumed that prison labour has its roots from slavery.
It’s existence led to the development of International Human Rights instruments based on the inalienable rights of a human being.
These instruments are codified in the Ugandan legal system with the cardinal objective of eliminating forced labour and like practices.
Although prison labour is not considered to be forced labour, the instruments adopted by nations throughout the world impose certain restrictions on the use of prison labour.
It is evident that despite the legal provisions put in place to safeguard the rights of prisoners, the findings show that labour in Uganda government prisons is involuntary and thus oppressive and exploitative.
However, there are indications that prison labour is desirable so long as it caters for the needs of those concerned.
Prisons are crammed to over 200 percent of installed capacity; food and water are sometimes scarce; and health care is often non-existent.
More than half of the prisoners have not been tried and are waiting there for their cases to be heard and resolved.
It’s clear that overcrowding and pretrial detention are interlinked. Between November and March this year, the Human Rights Watch visited 16 prisons across Uganda and interviewed over 164 prisoners and 30 prison officers. They found dangerous, unhealthy conditions at many prisons, ripe for the spread of Tuberculosis and HIV
Prisoners are packed together in cells with tiny air vents, in some places day and night.
Sometimes sex is traded by the most vulnerable for food. HIV and TB infection rates are almost twice as common in prison as they are outside of prisons.
Each year, 50,000 prisoners pass through Uganda’s prisons, and ignoring their health means that they will leave sick and in need of care in the communities to which they return. And it means they may bring disease home with them, to their families and neighbours.
Prisoners are forced to provide free illegal labour to families and friends of senior government officials.
Throughout the Uganda Prison Service, thousands of prisoners, including those yet to face trial for any crime, are subjected to forced labour, slaving away on fields belonging to the government, to prison staff personally, or to private landowners close to the ruling class.
The money they earn goes to the prisons system or into the pockets of some prisons staff. They are brutally beaten if they fall behind or complain during the hard labour in the fields.
While appearing before Parliament’s Defence and Internal Affairs committee on January 24, 2017 to present the sector’s Budget Framework Paper for the 2017/2018 financial year, Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of Prisons, revealed that the new payment structure will see prisoners earn more. But this has not been implemented on ground.
While currently prisoners offering skilled labour are paid Shs 500 per day, this was supposed to be increased to Shs 1, 398.
Those offering semi-skilled labour have been earning Shs 250 per day, but this was to be increased to Shs 699.
The unskilled labour, who majorly engage in digging, have been receiving Shs 100 per day but this was to be raised to Shs 280 per day.
Unfortunately all this money isn’t paid to prisoners.
Prisoners have a right to vote by virtue of Article 59 of the 1995 Constitution as amended. It entails that every citizen of or above the age of 18 has a right to vote.
It’s the duty of every citizen to register as a voter in public elections and referenda and the state has to take necessary steps to ensure registration of the right to vote. The question that arises is, do prisoners lose citizenship?
The obvious answer is no. If so, then why are they denied such a right?
The Prisons Act cap. 304 is silent about this issue and Section 19(1) (2) of the Electoral Commission Act only applauds Article 59 of the Constitution, which is very clear. My humble presumption is that what the law does not prohibit then it allows.
Most prisons own big chunks of land that are not utilised. So I am convinced that the country has the capacity to also create special facilities for the implementation of conjugal rights.
Conjugal rights basically relate to marriage and the relationship between husband and wife.
This raises controversy in that if such a right is granted, should it be restricted to only the married people?
If yes, then what about those who are not married?
There is no law in place that prohibits any person who is not married from having sex.
This is regulated by religious beliefs, something that also creates controversy between law and morality in relation to Uganda’s jurisprudence.
The legislature should go back to the sketch board and do the appropriate thing. However, just like some human rights, it is proper and just to have reasonable restrictions that may come with them.
The author is deputy National Youth Coordinator and Regional Liaison Officer, National Unity Platform (NUP) in Northern Uganda.