Ugandan human rights activists are concerned that President Yoweri Museveni’s proposal to do away with bail for people suspected of committing certain crimes could swell the country’s already overcrowded prison system and exacerbate severe problems in delivering health services to inmates.
Museveni announced the move to amend the Constitution and the Penal Code in May following “Walk to Work” protests over high food and fuel prices. The proposed law would allow judges to deny bail for at least six months to people arrested for treason, terrorism, rape, economic sabotage and rioting.
A second wave of Walk to Work protests in October led to several arrests and at least one opposition leader has been charged with treason; rights groups say if the law were passed, the government could use it to curtail opposition activity by keeping political adversaries in jail.
Article 23(6) of the Ugandan Constitution states: “Anyone arrested is entitled to apply to the court to be released on bail and the court may grant that person bail on such conditions as the court considers reasonable.”
The president’s proposal has drawn heavy criticism from human rights activists. “The proposal will create legislation directed to particular citizens with a deliberate aim to encroach on their rights, which is contrary to the cardinal principle of the rule of law,” James Mukasa Sebugenyi, president of the Uganda Law Society, wrote in an editorial in a local daily earlier this year.
But activists are also concerned that Uganda’s prison system – already bursting at the seams – would not be able to deal with the increased prisoner numbers. More than half the people incarcerated in Uganda’s prisons are pre-trial detainees – either unaware of their right to bail or unable to afford it.
“With such a law, it would worsen the already appalling situation where you have so many people in prison who cannot even be taken care of,” Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), told IRIN.
Many of Uganda’s prisoners have little access to basic healthcare, despite living conditions that increase their likelihood of contracting diseases, especially tuberculosis.
A Human Rights Watch report on Ugandan prisons earlier this year found they were already at 224 percent capacity, the result of a backlogged judicial system. The result is that prisoners are squeezed into spaces that were built to accommodate far fewer inmates, which encourages the transmission of TB and other diseases. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime put TB prevalence in Ugandan prisons at twice the national rate.
Prisoners bring “different symptoms and diseases” into the prisons, said Morris Kizito Mukasa, who runs Mission After Custody – an organization that helps prisoners transition back into society. He spends a lot of time in prisons listening to inmate concerns. “They are over-congested. A prison which was designed for 50 prisoners is now accommodating more than 300. There’s a possibility of contamination.”
And the overcrowding stretches the prison system’s already finite resources, which can further limit prisoners’ access to treatment.
HRW calculated that the government spends 4,830 Ugandan shillings per prisoner – an estimated US$1.80 – on health-related expenses annually. The tight budget means that money for other key health-related needs, such as transportation to hospital when prisoners get sick, is not always there.
Of the country’s 223 prisons, only 63 have a health worker on site, according to Katherine Todrys, the lead author of the HRW report; often the only medical treatment they can offer is Paracetamol or other basic painkillers.
The President’s announcement followed chaotic “Walk to Work” protests over the rising cost of living Prisons without healthcare facilities are required to call on local hospitals or health units or send prisoners to major prison health centres, such as Murchison Bay Hospital in Kampala, the only institution in the prison system equipped to provide TB treatment and antiretroviral therapy. A lack of ready transportation can have especially serious consequences for prisoners with HIV/AIDS or TB, who can find their access to treatment limited and then run the risk of developing drug resistance.
“Over half of these people have never been convicted of a crime, but are being subjected to these conditions,” Todrys. “It can lead to disease and death without ever having a trial or being convicted of anything.”
However, Frank Baine Mayanja, public relations officer for the Uganda Prisons Service (UPS), said the prison system had made great strides in providing healthcare, especially in facilities near cities, and the standard of healthcare for prisoners was much the same as for an average Ugandan.
The UPS, Mayanja said, was doing its best with extremely limited resources, and had more nurses to assist at Murchison Bay; he noted, however, that the service had struggled to place healthcare professionals in rural areas with limited access to water and electricity.
“We are under strain, but that should not be the excuse not to come out and do something for our people,” he said. “That’s why for us we say, we have made strides. We are transforming.”
But Mayanja did agree that Uganda’s prisons were overcrowded, even without the bail law.
Todrys said there were many changes that could happen right away within prisons to immediately improve prisoner health, including ramping up TB screening for all inmates when they enter and scaling up the availability of voluntary counselling and testing for HIV. She added that prisons could provide condoms for prisoners, because while homosexual activity is illegal in Uganda, there is little doubt it is taking place in prison where HIV prevalence is potentially twice the national rate.