23 December 2012

Uganda: One Deathrow Inmate's Account

When he steps out of the heavily guarded metal doors into the visiting room, he looks composed, groomed and far healthier than the average person enjoying freedom outside the walls of Luzira prison.

He is aware of his surroundings, but chooses to have a positive conscience. After all, how much worse can it get for a man on death row?

As a man on death row, he says when he first arrived in prison he weighed 75kg. When he started trial, he weighed 85 kilos; and now he is 92 kilos.

"I exercise constantly to keep a positive mental attitude and my friends and family come to visit. I try to have peace of mind and try not to think about prison," he says, requesting anonymity to protect his privacy and for harmony's sake in Luzira.

He can only hope for what lies ahead for him this Christmas; a visit from family and friends. Christmas is quite different for this inmate in the condemned section of Luzira Upper prison. This day is so special to him that he keeps a diary of everything he has done the last two Christmases.

"I like to spoil myself on Christmas to try to keep a positive mental attitude unlike other people who are depressed. Religion has helped me a lot. Romans 12:12 says, 'Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and hopeful in prayer'. This has taught me that maintaining a good conscience is the best pillow to lie on," he says.

Having been in jail since February 2010, he remembers his first Christmas in prison. On Christmas eve, he received visitors who carried sugar, rice, meat and vegetables. They also left Shs 500,000 with the office in charge of registering.

"On Christmas day, it rained so heavily in the morning but as a devout Catholic, I don't compromise on mass. At 9am I went to pray with Father Antonio who was a Comboni missionary based in Mbuya but preferred to do a prison ministry. The Gospel that day was taken from the book of John 1:1-18," he recalls, looking at his pocket diary.

After mass, he went back to his ward and hooked up with friends with whom they shared the special Christmas food they had prepared.

"The first Christmas in prison has memories; you think about how you were spending other Christmases, waking up with a hangover from the bar-hopping," he says.

But in prison, they spend the day eating, chatting and reading newspapers. When lock-up time came at 4pm that Christmas, he retired to his ward and spent the evening reflecting on life in and out of jail. Before he became a jailbird, Christmas was about special rituals and partying nonstop.

A week to Christmas, he would get together with friends, go to Shoprite and buy food, clothes, gifts, toys for children. Then they would identify a children's home which they visited before going to the Cancer Institute of Mulago. One Christmas, they bought a TV for a children's home in Mutundwe.

"We had to visit the children in the cancer institute every year without fail. We would go with balloons to lighten up the children. We would hand them toys and even help to feed them," he recalls. He is not sure if his friends carried on with this ritual.

Christmas Eve was a day of merry-making and bar-hopping. But as a must, he always attended midnight prayers at Christ the King with his friends.

"This helped us unite and if I missed that mass on Christmas day 2010, at least I said my prayers at night."

After the prayers, the bar-hopping and clubbing would resume till daybreak. He would wake up and drive to a friend's house for lunch.

"I was single and living alone; most of my family is out of the country. I always found myself in a situation where I missed my family; so, I would join my friends. It was hard for my family to come back to Uganda every year and we had not got a chance of a family reunion," he says.

Evenings were for relaxing as more friends joined to share a drink and chat the hours away until midnight when everyone retired back home.

"When you are in prison you reflect and think about your friends and family; you get homesick. When friends come to visit me after Christmas, I ask them what they did for Christmas and it is nice hearing their stories," he says.

Second Christmas, 2011:

This time round he wanted to honour and remind friends that even if he was behind bars, he missed and cared for them. So ,he wrote out Christmas cards for about 15 people which he sent out through his nephew.

"Some people got back to me to say they were touched by the message, especially coming from a prisoner. They did not think a prisoner could actually do something [free people] didn't do. Others did not get back to me," he recalls.

On December 22, the bishop of Masaka, John Baptist Kaggwa, visited to bless the prisoners. It was a good moment; he shared a good message of encouragement, hope and perseverance. Prisoners guilty or innocent are all united in prayer and whenever there is an important visitor like a bishop, sheikh, priest or the imam, all prisoners converge.

"At that moment, we all believe in one God; Muslim, Christian or otherwise."

On Christmas Eve, friends and family visited with packages. As routine, on Christmas day he went for mass conducted by Father Antonio.

"[Last year] was my first Christmas in the condemned section. I was visited in my room this time by one of the prison officers on duty and we prayed and shared Bible verses. I had a confession on December 21. Before Christmas, it is important during this period of advent that you are pure when expecting our Lord Jesus Christ," he says.

This Christmas:

"One thing about Christmas is the routine, it is only visitors that change; the programme stays the same. We have been promised that the Archbishop of Kampala diocese, Cyprian Lwanga, will be coming to bless us," he says.

With the support of the Franciscan prison ministry and the prison management, a lot of things have been made possible in spiritually building the faith of prisoners through seminars and workshops. Prisoners are encouraged to enjoy Christmas like anybody else. Those who have kanzus wear them. Those with special shoes put them on and those with food prepare a special meal.

There are no Christmas trees, balloons or lights in prison, for security reasons. But prisoners make some decorations using beads and paper.

"The mood feels different; churches bring goodies which they distribute to prisoners. Prisoners are visited by their relatives from upcountry and some prisoners receive visitors once a year; only during Christmas," he says.

Every donation during Christmas is shared by all prisoners. There are more prisoners in jail who depend on donations because some have no one to visit, while others are rarely visited by their relatives.

"All these things of priests coming and donations were not there. When Johnson Byabashaija came, he promoted the open-door policy, allowing people to come and help us in human development and positive thinking and reconciliation. It has registered enormous success. Now discipline levels are high not because of punishments, but because of the change of attitude when prisoners are visited and counselled," he says.

For now, he takes this time in his life as an intervention that has helped him to realise his true friends.

"Prison has made me come closer to God and also reflect on my life. I know one day I will get out; I don't know when and how long it will take but by God's divine will, I will get out at the right time."

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