Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Education Gives Ugandan Prisoners Hope for Successful Second Chances


Article Highlights


Whatever they achieved before doing time, inmates have the opportunity to advance at prison schools through the university level. By preparing to work in trades and professions upon release, they grown in self-esteem and substantially reduce their risk of reoffending. Prison crowding impinges on their ability to focus on their studies, but construction plans and changes in the justice system promise to alleviate that problem.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – A man wearing a loose-fitting two-piece yellow uniform walks slowly into an office. He looks calm and composed as he takes a seat on a long bench in the middle of the room and cups his chin.

The man, Samson Anundo, achieved the top score among prisoners who took Primary Leaving Examinations at Luzira Maximum Security Prison, Uganda’s largest correctional institution, last November.

“I was excited,” he says, his face lighting up with a smile. “I did not expect to pass highly.”

Passing the exam qualified him to enroll in the school’s secondary level. His favorite subject is religious studies, he says.

The 42-year-old father of two enrolled in primary studies when he arrived at Luzira prison, on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in 2011. He is awaiting the conclusion of criminal proceedings on a charge of defilement, or statutory rape.

Even if he is convicted and serves 10 to 15 years in prison, Anundo plans to continue with his education. After three years in the prison’s education services, he says he has found a new outlook and a determination to further his education.

“If I am not convicted, I will still make use of my education,” he says. “I am better than I was before I came to prison.”

Luzira prison inmates are taking advantage of free education services the institution offers to prepare for careers once they leave prison. A 2014 study conducted at the prison underscores the importance of education in helping inmates avoid repeat offenses. Many inmates enrolled in the education services complain that prison crowding hinders their ability to learn, but prison officials say the construction of additional prisons in the coming year will alleviate crowding.

Education services began in Ugandan prisons in 1997 to provide rehabilitation, says Anatoli Biryomumaisho, the headmaster of Luzira Upper Prison Inmates’ Schools, where male prisoners study.

Thousands of prisoners have benefited from the education services, he says.

Luzira prison, which has male and female sectors, had more than 3,000 prisoners as of the end of June. Some 35 percent of the prisoners are enrolled in the system’s education services, which consist of primary and secondary education, a university program, and training in trades such as tailoring and carpentry.

The more than 200 prisons in the country offer the same curriculum, which mirrors the national curriculum.

Makerere University, the largest university in Uganda, offers a university program through a center it operates at the prison. Inmates can take degree and diploma courses in business administration, social sciences, education, sciences and management.

Seventy inmates teach the prison’s primary and secondary classes and provide counseling, Biryomumaisho says. Some of them acquired teaching credentials before entering prison; others have completed six years of secondary schooling through the prison services.

The Uganda Prisons Service, the government agency responsible for administering prisons, aims to reduce the number of repeat offenders by giving prisoners an opportunity to reintegrate into society upon release.

Ninety percent of repeat offenders in Uganda have poor educational backgrounds and lack livelihood skills, according to a 2014 study conducted by Luzira prison’s education department. The findings reinforce the need to continue education services.

In June, Luzira prison partnered with the Prison Education Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that aims to reduce recidivism by providing inmate-students with cognitive tools to function as productive citizens. 

The project offers a comprehensive curriculum to bolster students’ education and foster rehabilitation, Biryomumaisho says. The project added subjects such as healing, forgiving, sociology and entrepreneurship to the standard curriculum.

“We transform the prisoners from criminality to civility,” Biryomumaisho says.

Many prisoners find that the education service offers them a second chance at success beyond prison life.

Amina Stella, 33, is serving a 20-year sentence for attacking her husband’s lover with acid.

A mother of two, Stella was initially reluctant to enroll in the prison’s education services because of her age, she says. She felt it was improper for her to go to school at the same time as her daughters.

Luzira prison teachers persuaded Stella to enroll. Last November, she took the Primary Leaving Examinations at the same time as her 13-year-old daughter. She passed.

“I am happy that I have some papers now,” she says with a smile, referring to her qualifications.

She plans to continue her studies and become a nurse once she completes her sentence in 2025.

Prisoners join school at the last level of schooling they completed, and everyone is accepted, says Biryomumaisho, who has headed the prison schools for nine years.

As in Ugandan schools, inmates are required to complete seven years of primary schooling before taking a leaving exam. They then begin six years of secondary schooling.

After completing the secondary curriculum, they can enroll in university programs that range from three to six years, Biryomumaisho says.

Some prisoners also study trades instead of seeking diplomas and university degrees, or as a supplementary component of their education.

James Aleku, 24, arrived at Luzira prison in January 2013. He is serving time for statutory rape. He expects to be released in 2022.

Gifted with his hands, Aleku has chosen to learn carpentry instead of enrolling in school. He believes his job prospects will be better than those of inmates who have opted to attend school.

“Many people in Uganda with degrees do not have jobs,” he says. “I don’t know any carpenter who has no job. If they don’t get jobs, they employ themselves.”

In addition to skills, counseling is a major part of the prison’s educational program.

Every day, teachers spend 15 to 20 minutes counseling prisoners, says Ronald Ssentamu, 43, an inmate and head teacher of the men’s primary school section.

Ssentamu, who arrived at Luzira prison in 2000, is serving a 20-year sentence for murder. He obtained a diploma in community psychology before going to prison.

Some prisoners find it hard to accept their circumstances, he says. Teachers provide one-on-one counseling to prisoners who are depressed or suicidal, and any others who request it.

The goal of counseling, as well as the overall education program, is to help prisoners focus on their future, Ssentamu says. It helps them put aside their concerns about their cases and families back home to concentrate on their studies and discover their purpose in life.

“What I like about teaching in prison is seeing someone who was downcast have hope again,” he says. “You can’t study if you have no hope.”

Stella says counseling has helped her learn to control her emotions. It has also shaped her and her colleagues into better citizens.

“We have changed the way we look at life,” she says. “I am sure even if we left prison now, we would not commit crimes again.”

Ex-convicts who embarked on successful careers after getting educated at Luzira prison are a source of inspiration to inmates.

Alex Afayo, 37, was sentenced to Luzira prison in 2002 for deserting the army.

Afayo had dropped out of school in the second year of secondary school to join the army, hoping to earn money for his school fees. He left the army after six years because he hated being cut off from his family – and because he realized he could never save enough money for school.

Getting an education put his life on track, he says. While in prison, he got the opportunity to go back to school. He took the secondary school exams in 2006 and went on to study social work and social administration through the prison’s university program.

“Being in prison helped me attain free education that had eluded me before,” he says.

Afayo graduated from the university program in Luzira prison in 2011. Now employed by Product of Prison, a Dutch nonprofit organization, he counsels inmates at Luzira prison.

Many prisoners find it difficult to see the point in getting an education behind bars.

“I am 47, and I’m serving 20 years in prison,” inmate George Sendege says. “Even if I study, I may not use that knowledge.”

Sendege, who was convicted of murder in 2009, prefers to spend his time singing in the prison’s church choir. 

“I thought it was better for me to be in church and serve God as a choir member so that I prepare to meet my creator,” he says.

Some of those who do attend school, such as Anundo, decry congestion in classrooms and cells, which they say makes learning difficult.

“We are very many in class and in our rooms,” he says. “One room is shared by three, so it’s hard to read when others are around.”

Classes at Luzira prison are held in a building in the main prison compound that comprises classrooms, a computer laboratory and a science laboratory. Two or more classes are conducted simultaneously in different sections of each classroom.

Prisoners are further divided according to case status and length of sentence. Death row inmates study alone, as do inmates awaiting trial. They only meet at exams.

Imella Prossy, a human rights lawyer based in Kampala, appreciates the value of prison education. But she has noted for the past three years that problems in the justice system are having a negative impact on prisoners.

“Case processing is slow, remand periods are exceeded, and this is responsible for the congestion in prison,” she says. “Prisoners may find it difficult to concentrate under such circumstances.”

She calls on prison authorities to ease congestion so inmates can better concentrate on their studies.

Biryomumaisho acknowledges that prisoners have a hard time learning in crowded classrooms and cells. Luzira prison is congested because all criminal suspects with pending cases are remanded there, he says.

“This is the reception center for the whole country,” he says.

Robert Naimuli, the assistant public relations officer of Uganda Prisons Service, also acknowledges that prison congestion impedes learning.

The construction of five additional prisons in Uganda, including facilities in Wakiso and Nakasongola districts, will reduce congestion, Naimuli says.

The prisons, which will house 700 to 1,000 prisoners each, are expected to be ready by June 2015, he says.

Furthermore, the Ugandan justice system is reducing the Luzira inmate population by encouraging criminal defendants to plead guilty, shortening their time in remand, Naimuli says. Prisoners are promised lighter sentences if they admit wrongdoing instead of taking their cases to trial.

The initiative, which started two years ago, has eased congestion at Luzira prison, he says. There are fewer prisoners on remand in Luzira prison than there were two years ago, creating an environment more conducive to learning.

To further reduce the prison population, petty offenders are given noncustodial sentences, such as community service, he says.

Anundo attributes his success in school to the head teacher, Biryomumaisho, who encouraged him to forget his past failures and focus on his future.

“He was like a parent to me,” Anundo says. “He strengthened me and told me being in jail is not the end of everything.”

Now in the first year of secondary school, Anundo hopes to continue excelling in academics. He dreams of becoming a schoolteacher once he leaves prison.