I first heard about the African Prisons Project through a friend who had encountered the charity whilst on a gap year in Uganda.
At the time I was in the final year of my Law degree at the University of Manchester, and I had no idea what my next move was going to be. I didn’t feel like I knew enough about the world, or myself for that matter, to be able to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. So, with finals rapidly approaching, I applied for a volunteer internship with the charity at their headquarters in Kampala, Uganda. I received the news that my application had been successful in April 2012, and then promptly forgot about the whole thing as exams took over my life. Then suddenly it was August and I was on a plane. It was at this point that I began to panic. I had no idea what to expect when I landed. My frame of reference for Africa was non-existent, and this was the first time I’d done any kind of travelling. The first few days in Uganda were spent berating myself for thinking this was a good idea and seriously contemplating going home. It wasn’t until I began my work for APP that I began to realise how incredible an opportunity I had been given.
APP was established in 2007 and to date the charity has reached 25,000 prisoners in Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone & Nigeria. The charity’s primary aims are to bring dignity and hope to prisoners by improving access to healthcare, education, justice and community reintegration. The task the charity has set itself is a daunting one when you consider the extent of the problems it aims to solve. In Uganda alone, the challenges are immense. To begin with, overcrowding is at a dangerously high level, with Uganda’s 223 prisoners at 224% capacity. In conjunction with unsanitary conditions and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, overcrowding means that prisoners in Uganda suffer unconscionable human rights abuses every day. This is made even more shocking by the fact that the majority of people imprisoned in Uganda have never been convicted of a crime. In May 2012, there were 33,500 inmates in the Ugandan prison system. 18,336 of them were on remand. It is not uncommon for people to be held on remand for five years without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom or meeting with a lawyer. One of the most startling facts I heard was that 80-90% of those on remand had already served a longer sentence than they would have done had they been convicted of the crime they stand accused of. Once convicted, the chance of appeal is small (unless you can afford to pay for it). Therefore, the majority of the prison population are poor, uneducated, and helpless. This is especially true for the prisoners of Uganda’s death row, where I spent the majority of my time working with APP’s legal education department.
APP’s legal education department aims to educate prisoners about the justice system and raise awareness of human rights. They also support a number of prisoners, prison staff and ex-inmates with their legal studies. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in prison with some of APP’s beneficiaries and my initial trepidation about entering an African prison was soon dismissed as I got to know the prisoners themselves. They were courteous and respectful to me, and their dignity and courage in the face of such adversity was truly humbling. I tried my best to help them as much as I could, but I came away convinced that I had learnt far more from them than they had from me.
I expected to leave Uganda feeling depressed and deflated, but the whole experience focused my mind. It gave me the confidence and drive to go after my ambitions, and it made me realise how lucky I was to have the opportunity to do so. If you are having doubts about where your future lies I highly recommend that you take some time out to see the world and get to know yourself. If APP’s work appeals to you, don’t hesitate to get in touch with them and volunteer. Not only will it change your own life, but it could give you the chance to change the lives of one of the most vulnerable communities in the world today.
For further information on internship opportunities go to www.africanprisons.org.