Investing in decongesting

building community service staff capacity in Uganda

In late August, PRI brought together members of local criminal justice agencies across Jinja, Mbale and Iganga, Uganda, in order to raise awareness and promote community service as an alternative to imprisoning people for petty crimes. Police, Prison and Probation Officers as well as Court Clerks took part in a day of discussion and learning and PRI’s ExTRA Project Manager, Omar Phoenix Khan took part in the in the Jinja based training.

 Workshop with Police, Prison, Probation and Court staff

Workshop with Police, Prison, Probation and Court staff

PRI’s ExTRA Project (Excellence in Training on Rehabilitation in Africa), funded by UK aid, aims to increase the number of community service orders awarded in these three key areas of Uganda and directly have an impact on decongesting Uganda’s hugely overpopulated prisons.

The prison system in Uganda has seen little improvement in its conditions or increase in its capacity since the 1960s when the national population was around 7 million; now at over 30 million, there are more than 42,000 people held within a prison system with an official capacity of 16,499 (1).

A large number of those in prison are held for minor offences such as selling newspapers on the street without a licence, brewing illicit alcohol or vagrancy. The group discussed how empowering those who commit first offences due to poverty can help to reduce levels of recidivism and that it makes no sense for the state to remove people from their families, thereby perpetuating the poverty cycle and affecting the next generation. Many noted the significant financial implications of sending a person to prison – where the state and therefore the taxpayers must pay for their food, accommodation and clothing, something that many Ugandan’s struggle to do for their own families.

One of the reasons that community service is underused is because different agencies and the individuals employed by them sometimes do not understand or completely fulfil their roles. For example, a first time offender who is eligible for community service is unlikely to be put forward for this alternative punishment unless a pre-sentence report is completed fully. On many occasions the officer dealing with the case will make the decision her/himself as to whether the offence and offender is suitable. It has also been noted that officers can be influenced by the desires of the complainant’s family to push for a custodial sentence and the feeling that anything else would appear too lenient (2).

 Community Service roll play with staff from various criminal justice agencies.

Community Service roll play with staff from various criminal justice agencies.

Through the ExTRA Project, PRI is investing in the criminal justice agencies across East Africa by providing training and information on the advantages of community service to all of those involved in the process. As a way to explore the various roles of different stakeholders during the training, the participants were separated into groups so that the agencies were mixed and asked to carry out a role-play situation, to put into practice what had been discussed throughout the day. Participants took up the roles of the offender, his wronged wife, a magistrate and members of the community and went through a scenario in detail. Participants were able to explain the benefits of awarding community service in this case and it was also interesting to see those in uniform acting as the opinionated members of the community that they deal with. This clearly demonstrated the public resistance that community service can encounter, and why support at the ground level is necessary.

The group appeared to leave the training session feeling positive about the viable use of community service as an alternative to imprisonment and made a commitment to make Jinja a template for the rest of Uganda to follow.