Irish photographer Lar Boland spent time in Luzira, one of Uganda’s most notorious prisons this year. There, inmates told him how outreach programmes in the prison helped them to think positively about their futures – and about redemption. Here is his account:
Each day offers all of us a chance to change, to put right the wrongs that we have done. But just how easy is it to turn your life around when you are facing years, decades, life or even death row behind bars?
The Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Africa started the Franciscan Prison Ministry 24 years ago to reach out to inmates and former inmates of Kampala’s prisons in Uganda.
“For the eight years I have spent in prison I have lived a desperate life,” one inmate told me, “however, spiritual seminars and prayer meetings allowed me to access counselling. Positive thinking and good leadership have helped me to change my behaviour.”
"I learnt to accept the situation I am in, and I hope to live a better life in the future. The spiritual outreach empowered me with leadership skills that were identified by the prison administration who appointed me as a member of the inmate management disciplinary committee in charge of general duties. Every inmate benefits from this program as it curbs stress, and confusion".
For more than two decades, the Prison Ministry has been running programmes in the maximum security prison in Luzira in Kampala, and the overcrowded prison in Kigo near Entebbe.
Both of these prisons are notorious, with Luzira housing an estimated 20,000 inmates with 500 of them on death row, and 95% of Kigo’s inmates, estimated between 1,000 – 3,000, are capital offenders. Convictions range from petty theft, armed robbery, kidnapping, murder, and rape.
Inmates in Luzira are a rainbow of colour. Those on remand and those serving less than 20 years wear pale yellow overalls.
Prisoners wearing a more intense yellow are serving more than 20 years. Inmates who wear a red stripe have tried to escape, and a blue stripe indicates superiority, and entitlement.
Due to staff shortages, some inmates have been designated as regimental police who wear white arm bands, and keep the peace. Inmates on death row live separately from the main prison population, and wear white overalls.
Fewer violent incidents
In recent years, the Luzira prison has undergone a transformation. Through advocacy and campaigning by other organisations like the African Prisons Project, access to education ranging from basic literacy to secondary school to vocational training to university degrees has been established for inmates.
The ethos in Luzira is to keep inmates busy, which makes the prison safer with fewer violent incidents. This in turn has created a low rate of repeat offenders with the level of recidivism at 30% in Uganda prisons compared to 41% in Ireland.
Despite these advances, there are often more than 40 inmates crammed into bare cells measuring just 8m x 8m. It is widely known that a large number of inmates are innocent, and do not belong in prison. Some inmates have been on remand for years due to the very slow Ugandan justice system. Since 2010 support from Misean Cara has totalled €100,000, and has been the saving grace of many inmates’ redemption.
A joint initiative between the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, and the Secular Franciscan Order, the Prison Ministry advocates communities to live positive lives by promoting social rehabilitation, and assisting with the reintegration of former inmates into communities.
This reintegration is underpinned by the goal of developing better citizens who are community-focused.