At the end of March, a little later than the other visits, we visited the popular, bustling town of Jinja (where the River Nile begins its long, arduous journey to the Mediterranean) to monitor the work which goes on in the prison there, and to ensure that the prison staff and the prisoner trainers are getting on well.
Jinja, whilst being the nearest of the prisons we work in (outside of Kampala), is along one of the most notorious roads in Uganda. It is part of a major trade route between the Kenyan port of Mombassa, and Uganda’s capital, as well as being a well-travelled road for commuters, tourists, and just about everyone else. Thankfully we arrived safely and in one piece – despite a few near misses – and we shared a collective sigh of relief as we pulled up to the prison gates.
In Jinja, we only work in the men’s prison, where the need is greatest. It is one of just two maximum security prisons in Uganda, and is very, very overcrowded. This was tangible as we stepped through the security gate and approached the sign-in desk. The noise – the hubbub of activity, and general chatter – was constant and a total contrast to the numerous other prisons I have visited.
We came heavily laden; there was a certificate ceremony taking place today! When prisoners complete any of our courses, they are presented with a certificate of achievement. This is signed by both the Country Manager for Product of Prison and the Officer in Charge (OC) of that particular prison. As well as receiving a certificate, prisoners are each given a local doughnut and a soda (a coke or similar) which is a real treat as sugar is seldom found in prison! The prisoners who deliver the training are also presented with a certificate, and in addition to their doughnut and soda, they receive an extra treat – a 1kg bar of soap! Soap is “prison currency” in Uganda. As well as being used for bathing, washing clothes, etc. soap can be traded for other commodities which are available but perhaps expensive in prison, such as sugar or tea leaves.
So before we reached prison we had stopped off in town and found a small shop which conveniently deals sodas and doughnuts wholesale. We had to buy around 80 of each, so I’m sure people were wondering about the party we were planning! We, fortunately, had help carrying everything inside the prison thanks to some eager prisoners.
We had met with the Welfare Officer of the prison, a wonderfully gregarious lady called Martha. She overflowed with laughter and was delighted to welcome us to prison. She also summoned Michael to come and see us. He is the prisoner responsible for delivering the training to his fellow inmates. He was a teacher before he was convicted, and so he is a natural when it comes to our courses. He is meticulously organised and always has a warm and kindly smile. In Jinja we offer courses in career skills, reintegration skills, and basic computing. Michael oversees each of these, but also has others whom he has trained up to help deliver the courses.
Computing is a course in high demand, and prisoners are taught a wide range of skills. Many Ugandans are computer-illiterate so we cover the fundamentals before progressing to the basics of Microsoft Word, Excel, and Paint, as well as a simulation of the internet and email. Of course, prisoners aren’t allowed access to the internet, but we have software which gives a good demonstration so that prisoners can learn how to search for information and use email. Interest in this course is always very high, but sadly a lack of funding prevents us from expanding this project.
The career skills and reintegration skills courses are both popular as well, and are available in each of the prisons we work in. They cover everything from budgeting, managing personal relationships, conflict resolution, to writing a CV, preparing for interviews, and where to look for work. There is always a steady stream of willing participants in our courses, and given the population of Jinja Main Prison, the days where we present certificates are always very busy, with a lot of certificates (and doughnuts!) to get through!
After an early start and an active day in prison, we stopped into a couple of local businesses where we supply products which prisoners make, before daring to venture down the treacherous road to Kampala again. One business we found, The Deli, is a wonderful café in the town centre which has stocked POP products for some time. Thanks to some quick thinking we had previously made up a number of tealight-sized samples of our new scented candles (citronella or lavender for those wondering) which we were able to leave with the owner, who seemed very keen – and very grateful we were simply dropping off the samples and then leaving her alone! She was quite busy, and so were we, which worked out well for everyone!
It’s days like this that keeps the work interesting for me. I am not stuck on a computer in a stuffy office all day – I’m always moving around, whether it’s checking in with customers like those at The Deli, or I’m stumbling around the labyrinth of market stalls in the city centre to source materials to make our products with, or I’m visiting prisons to monitor the courses and support the prisoners as needed. Every day is different, every day is busy, and every day I feel like we are achieving things for prisoners. And that is a great feeling.
Business Development Manager