Woman writining in a notebook

An Open Letter to the President on Rights of Detainees

Dear President Museveni,

On March 18, 2020, when it became clear that Uganda was under an imminent threat of confirming the first case of the novel coronavirus disease, you took decisive action to disperse the high-risk environments for transmissions. You ordered for the closure of schools, universities, places of worship, among others.

The decision was timely. Indeed, by the time Uganda registered its first case on March 22, all those concentration points had been safely dispersed.

Mr. President, it is precisely because of this decisiveness and success that I write to you about a critical concentration point that is clearly not getting the due attention it deserves – the prisons.

Whereas prisons cannot be closed, critical and timely action needs to be taken to save hundreds of lives and avoid possible riots and formation of a complex breeding place for the virus.

It is for this reason, Mr. President, that I believe you invoked your powers on April 22 to pardon 833 prisoners in a move to decongest the overcrowded prisons.

As of 2019, Uganda prisons were holding over 55,000 prisoners in facilities that are designed to hold only 17,304. By any stretch of imagination, the 833 was a drop in the ocean. With an occupancy rate of over 319 percent, a lot more needs to be done to ease the pressure on prisons.

I find it, therefore, self-defeating to permit mass arrests for apparently violating emergency COVID-19 preventive measures. Images of Winny Amongi and other women traders in Lira clutching onto the naked bodies of their children as they were being wretchedly dispatched to prison on a lorry is a sobering illustration of the unjust arrests.

Prison authorities have argued, rather disingenously, that they have quarantine centers for detention of suspects arrested during the pandemic. “We cannot risk having a case of COVID-19 in prison facilities and so we have set up isolation (he means quarantine. Isolation is for confirmed cases) centers,” Frank Baine, prisons spokesperson says.

Mr. President, there are two fundamental flaws with the proposed prison quarantine approach. Firstly, it denies prisons the much-needed room to decongest the existent general prison population. Secondly, it exposes thousands of suspects arrested during the pandemic to an outbreak because they are locked up together. All detainees – general population and those arrested during the pandemic – have equal rights.

For those who were doubting whether the virus can breach the prison walls, the confirmed case at Kaiti prison in Namutumba district – which has left over 200 prisoners and warders in quarantine – should serve as testament. The prison standard operating procedures, although helpful, cannot be an alternative to decongesting the facilities. They cannot for sure keep away the invisible enemy.

On March 27, Chapter Four Uganda in concert with Avocats Sans Frontieres, Legal Aid Service Providers’ Network, National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, and the Muslim Centre for Justice and Law petitioned the government to take urgent measures to protect the rights of detainees in Uganda.

They, inter alia, called for the release of all convicts who are nearing the end of their sentences, detainees charged with petty crimes and those in the age-group at risk or with pre-existing health conditions. They also called for the release of all detainees who have clocked mandatory bail time, and suspension of pre-trial detention for minor offences that are punishable by sentences of less than two years’ imprisonment.

Mr. President, arresting people for violating the preventive measures is counterproductive in the fight against COVID-19. I believe it is the reason why on June 1, you ordered for the unconditional release of all those arrested.

It is time to stop the arrests and act to significantly lower general prison populations.

Locking up petty prisoners, as I have opined in the past, will not make our societies safer.

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