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Guilty until proven innocent

Uganda, Masaka Main Prison.

Uganda, Masaka Main Prison.

 
Africa Uganda criminal justice prisons photos
“Justice delayed is justice denied”, the officer in charge of one of Uganda’s prisons said to me. In most of the nine Ugandan prisons I have visited so far, prisoners on remand far outnumber convicts. Just one example: in Masaka Main Prison, the numbers are 218 convicts and 584 on remand. Petty criminals are not supposed to spend more that 60 days before being taken to court. For capital offenses, the maximum period is six months. In practice, many suspects spend far more time behind bars. According to Angelo Izama, writing for The Ugandan Reader, 54 percent of all Ugandan prison inmates are on remand.  This amounts to mass detentions without trial. In one case one prisoner had spent 6 years in custody on remand. The inordinately long remand periods are a decisive factor in inclining prisoners to plead guilty.

Uganda has a high incarceration rate compared to the other countries in the region: it is presently at 96 people per 100,000 (to compare: prison rates in the US are the world’s highest, at 716 people per 100,000; the Netherlands are at 82. Source: Prison Studies). And Uganda’s prison population is growing fast while holding capacity has not increased to any extend. The present congestion rate of 238% is expected to get worse: for a space planned for a single inmate, more than two share. Izama: “The crowded unhygienic conditions mean that aside from being punished without due process- the punishment is harsh and often results into the death of prisoners from disease [mortality rates from illness tend to be higher in prisons than outside].”

Uganda’s Chief Justice Odoki says he has too few judges to hear cases. The backlog is compounded by the fact that police investigations take long to conclude, which delays prosecution. Others point at corruption as a cause for the delays and say files disappear, judges are absent or defence lawyers are allegedly sick. Also, the police may ask for transport to go to investigate and judges may want money to hear a case.

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