Over several years, one of the government institutions that rarely gets negative publicity is the Uganda Prisons Service. According to the Commissioner General of Prisons Johnson Byabashaija, the staff are under strict instructions to maintain a high level of integrity, earning the Prisons Service top accolades across the globe. Indeed, CGP Byabashaija says Uganda Prisons Service tops Africa in ensuring correctional standards for inmates, and it also comes in at No.4 globally.
The EagleOnline’s Richard Wanambwa caught up with CGP Byabashaija, a Veterinary Doctor by training, in a bid to try and ‘unearth the magic that is at work at the Uganda Prisons Service’.
Below are excerpts (slightly edited) of the interview.
What are your greatest achievements in the last two terms served as the Commissioner General of Prisons?
It is enhanced professionalism of the service personnel because across the country our staff knows what to do, whether in Arua, Ndorwa or Moroto. You know of a big politician who was taken to Moroto and handled very professionally.
And anyway, can you imagine if they bring you Gen. (David) Sejusa, Charles Wesley Mumbere (King for Rwenzururu), former Vice President Prof. Gilbert Bukenya and something wrong happens in the prison? Then you have let down the state! Therefore, handling them is a great achievement. We make few mistakes and we are not 100 per cent correct but largely our staff across the country knows what to do and that is my greatest achievement.
Should the appointing authority deem it fit, will you consider staying for another term or contract?
When I am given duty, I will do it. But (at times) age negates our abilities and by the time I finish this term I will be 62 years. And, as head of a security institution and I don’t think that is very sustainable. I expect this one to be my last term, but if appointed I will work.
As a department, is Prisons well-facilitated?
No, I think you can’t be well facilitated; I want to give you an example, last year in June 2016 I had 45,000 prisoners, this June, the average is 55,000 prisoners but the budget has not been increased. Therefore, that means that we have to work hard in order to bridge that gap. But because of production, you don’t hear much noise. Available funds for food are completely inadequate but because of that system I introduced, (where you see prisoners on trucks going for labour); that reduces the amount of food I have got to buy so that we could have more money. I have to produce more because the more I produce then the profits come back as appropriation on aid because that is the arrangement I have with finance (ministry).
Parliament appropriated any revenue as part of my budget so if I produce more, I have more revenue and that is why we are serious with cotton, seeds, furniture and all these things that bring in money.
Most Ugandans are saying that you (Prisons Department) is a success story, what do you attribute this to?
Prisons have succeeded because of the systems which are in place; if you fail an interview you will not be recruited! In fact for the first time last year we even dismissed people who failed training regardless of where they came from. It is a meritorious way of doing things. But you hear people saying that we use prisoners to do other work at night, it isn’t true because I wish you knew what is involved in getting a prisoner from prison at night!
There are about four controlled points of keys and I don’t know how all of you will agree! And you cannot gain out of that actually; you will be in real trouble if you get out a prisoner.
Has it ever happened under your leadership that a prisoner escaped at night?
No, it has never happened because the only way you can release a prisoner is when it is his/her time to go. But again, the staff knows the repercussions of that (prisoners escaping).
The establishment of systems in which everything we do: the way we assign staff to a particular prisoner, the way we take prisoners to court, discharge is strict.
We are very strict at the time of admission in that we record all the marks on the prisoner’s body so that you cannot say that they were inflicted on him while in prison. We measure your weight and height and others because all the systems are in place.
Another issue is that you will find out that the prisons are extremely clean and I think that is also part of our achievement. We actually carry out internal bench marking: go to Mbarara, Bushenyi and Bushenyi prison, which started it; where you see a prisoner and wonder ‘who he is’. Officers in-Charge (OCs) must be clean because when they are not, then they know what will happen next!
It is said you have a very ambitious programme for education, how far have you gone with it?
We have it because what we discovered is that all those who went through formal education did not come back to prison. The government agreed to fund education service and our teachers (primary, secondary and tertiary) are sent by the Education Service Commission. Also, Professor Waswa Balunywa has organized and streamlined secondary and diploma education, he is now going for a degree programme.
We also have a programme under the Africa Prison Project which has offered degrees of the University of London especially in Law. I have a famous prisoner called Susan Kigula, who has got a degree. She made the death penalty not to be mandatory. The other day Uganda Christian University wrote to us that they want to come in because I called them in 2008 and said “look, can you come in and do something”? Makerere University Business School (MUBS) responded immediately, so we shall continue. We have laboratories inside there; people can do their work there.
Is this programme being implemented at Luzira or in other centres?
We have these programmes in about seven regional prisons including Kigo prison, Mbarara, Masindi, Namalu and Arua but the main one is here (Luzira) where you can do science subjects.
It has been a successful programme that is why we have been ranked the number one rehabilitative correctional service in Africa! This is because we have the lowest number of people coming back to prison (about 20 per cent) which is the lowest in Africa and fourth in the world!
What have you done about staff housing and reduction of congestion in the prisons?
We are not doing well in this department but again we are not seated. We have 400 houses in Luzira, built by prisoners. We’re building women wing down near the railway and I will call the Minister to commission them. As per the President’s directive, we are building two roomed houses for the warders. For the low cost housing, we are making our own bricks and do our own construction because we don’t buy sand, we collect it from down in Kasangye. That is how housing is going on.
On congestion, we have built new cells in Ndorwa, Moroto Bushenyi, Buga, Kabong, Adjumani, Nebbi, Tororo and Soroti, among other places and all are designed to reduce congestion. Now, we are building a big one in Kitalya which will take about 2,000 inmates and if I transfer 2,000 inmates from Luzira to Kitalya, I would have solved half of the congestion problem in Luzira.
We have to continue doing that and I don’t think that I will solve it in my life time as Commissioner General of Prisons but I can only ease it. I can’t solve it entirely, it is complex; it is a criminal justice system challenge, not just a prison challenge.
You promised in Parliament that you are dedicating this term to making agriculture your top priority and making prisons self-reliant as far as food security is concerned. How far have you gone with this programme?
I am going to grow cotton, that one I can assure you! The first season we had 2500 hectares of cotton, this time, we are doubling it and next year we shall triple it to 10,000 hectares. I am producing maize seeds both hybrid and open variety and this is to enhance acreage and output. I now want to produce 13 million kilograms of maize per annum and my requirement is 15 million kilograms. Within this term, if I achieve that, then I can say that I worked for Uganda. And that is why we are talking agriculture.
Do you have enough land for commercial production?
We have land to do this; about 5,000 acres in Rwimi, Kabarole; 3,000 acres in Longole (Gulu) and 7,500 acres in Kitgum.
‘And you know what has happened?’ Now districts call me and give prisons land because of what we done; they want it replicated in their districts, so we have land to carry out this transformation!
One thing I can assure you, by the time I finish this term, I will have (acquired) a seed processor, combined harvesters with storage facilities with silos.
Don’t you think that talking commercial and going commercial will affect the production of food for the prison services?
No, because all the maize we produce we give it to the prison. We don’t sell any maize and that is why I want to increase it. For cotton, we sell it to the ginneries and out of this, we partly buy some for our uniforms. We also manufacture flags for the government, even those on the presidential vehicles. We have the latest screen printing machines at Luzira.
This might sound funny but how much do you spend on a prisoner in a day?
We just get the budget then divide it by the number of prisoners and of course we don’t exceed Shs2, 000 a day: posho and beans plus water and electricity. In the Maximum Prison we use boilers and we only use firewood when there is no power.
These things need to be factored in. There is also one thing which I didn’t tell you: the doctor will examine and recommend either a special diet and if you are able, we allow raw food to be brought and that one has enabled us manage our budget. One of the traditional leaders we have had in the recent past used to take millet flour with some cassava which is very soft and nice and I don’t think you have ever heard him complaining of his stay there. We handled him well and this compliment eases the food requirement. Overall, it is about food which is Shs2, 000 and then add water and electricity which comes to Shs7, 000 a day, which isn’t much.
How secure is Luzira and other prisons facilities that handle high profile prisoners, given the numerous rumors that fly around?
We have a good access control system; we are not yet perfect because we don’t have a scanner for baggage but now you go through security checks and we record your particulars in the computer. I have dogs and this is one of the things I have done in my tenure; to establish the dog section which takes over security at night in the Maximum prison. My idea is to replicate it in almost all the prisons but we started with Upper Prison and so there is no one who can dream of jumping out.
I had an inmate (sentenced to 45 years) coming out of Upper Prison and we have never established how he came out but the good thing is that we recaptured him and now he cannot (escape) because the dogs will have detected him because they don’t sleep. We don’t allow food inside the prison, it must be raw so that the person cooks for himself/herself and so that reduces the issue of poisoning.
And apart from Atwine, who was suspected of being poisoned, I have not heard cases of that nature but people just talk about it. But it is not easy to go and poison people although poisoning happens in anywhere but I don’t think it is the biggest problem we have.
What is the most challenging incident to happen to you as CGP?
When I had just been appointed and on Election Day prisoners run away from Arua prison; I think I was five or six months in office and I was shaken to the core. Then Atwine was the second. And why Atwine? I had been warned that since that guy is the one who pulled the trigger in the death of Robinah Kiyingi ‘be careful’, they would want to kill him and I had taken all the measures possible but they defeated our security by him getting admitted to the sickbay.
How have you managed to steer clear of scandals?
I live a very simple life, I don’t go to bars, and I have no concubine. I work hard and I also try to be an example to my staff: I don’t harass them but they know that I will punish them very seriously if they are in the wrong and so they try to stay very clear and that helps me in administration, people do work.
My Directors, Commissioners, heads of sections, Assistant Commissioners and I all work hard because we have our land, we are very productive.
I managed to plant a 200 hectare of pine (personal) and I have prison labour which I pay for but it is cheap. It is some of these things that help keep one out of scandals where you see and hear of people taking money that they can’t account for!
I don’t think that can easily happen here because I am very strict and a God-fearing person and that is why I am a Lay Canon of Church of Uganda. It is by God’s grace I have stayed scandal free and I hope I will remain like this in these few remaining years. But like I told you earlier, if I have been given work, I will do work. But you see this body also needs to rest because after 15 years as a Commissioner General, I don’t think that you would really want to add on (laughter), you can break down.
It is strenuous job; stressful job to have 55, 000 souls who don’t want to be with you but you have to keep them. It is very stressful but I enjoy it because I grew through the ranks and I was appointed and it is so motivating.
Is it tense when Luzira gets ‘visitors’ like Dr.Kizza Besigye and Gen. David Sejusa among others?
I have to be more careful and for example I have to visit them (high profile prisoners) to know what they would want to eat, what they are afraid of, their fears and anxieties so that you manage them properly.
But you are not on tension; you have enhanced activity and we treat them with care because we don’t want anything wrong to happen while they are there.
You see, if you handle Sejusa and you don’t have any big problem that is a big achievement. You handle the traditional leader and you don’t have any problem, you handle a VP and you have no big problem, we regard that as a milestone and it is evidence of the professionalism of our staff.