In Summary
  • The issue: Prison services.
  • Our view: The Judiciary has a constitutional duty to uphold human rights and, therefore, has a responsibility to suppress this unsustainable obsession with custodial sentencing.

Another very strong case has been made for a more enthusiastic invocation of the Community Service Regulations, 2001, by the deplorable conditions at Koch Prison in Nebbi District. These regulations, derived from the Community Service Act of 2000, created an opportunity for magistrates to appraise the situation of convicts of minor offences to determine if they can avoid imprisonment. Unfortunately, the congestion in our makes one suspect that not enough magistrates are exploring this option where convicts would be sentenced to community work.
Officials from the Uganda Human Rights Commission were scandalised when they inspected Nebbi’s prisons this week. They found a condemned unipot being used to stuff prisoners in Ojigo Prison, Wadelai sub-county. This sort of outrage is typical countrywide. What they saw in Nebbi was a sickening disregard for human rights. The UHRC was understandably aghast that inmates (some of them suspects on remand) were being frog-marched 32Km to and from court because of “no transport”. This is cruel, degrading and inhuman punishment which is prohibited by Article 44 of Uganda’s Constitution. It is also an abuse of due process because suspects are innocent until proven guilty; it is illegal to punish them. One senses that it has become too expensive for the government to manage our derelict prison system. Old prisons are horribly overcrowded. Inmates cannot be transported to court. Feeding and treatment of sick detainees is considered to be a luxury, not a human right. There is a solution to this problem in not locking up convicts found guilty of committing misdemeanors, whose sentencing hardly exceeds 24 months. These people would qualify for non-custodial sentences under the Community Service Act. A court which issues a community service order under Section 12 of that law also specifies the nature of work to be performed by a given offender, observing that, “that work shall be reasonable and not be beyond the capability, physical strength and actual ability of the offender.”
This progressive law targets first offenders, minors, women, youth, the disabled, senior citizens, those who readily plead guilty and those who commit less serious crimes. This practice is being applied with rather sensational results in more civilised climes.
It is important to understand that locking up minor offenders in primitive conditions serves no useful purpose in our already overburdened prisons. Prisons are supposed to serve the dual purpose of reforming while punishing convicts. We can achieve this objective without breaking the law as is now happening in places like Koch. The Judiciary has a constitutional duty to uphold human rights and, therefore, has a responsibility to suppress this unsustainable obsession with custodial sentencing.