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In this second edition of the Insights from inmates blog – featuring stories from prison written by prisoners themselves – we look at a different side of life in prison. The first edition gave “W.D.”’s experience of his very first day in prison – a frightening and confusing time. However, once inmates settle into prison life, many find an opportunity to pursue a passion they have carried with them behind prison walls. Some teach others to create, and others get the chance to play the beautiful game. Ratir Ezama shares his experience of playing for some of the world’s best-known football teams, all while he was behind bars, and Nsubunga J. Alex has contributed an art piece of inmates engaged in the sport.

Please note that for prisoners’ own protection, names are changed, and that as per prison policy, anything written in prison must be vetted by prison staff before leaving prison.

Ratir Ezama (former prisoner) – Playing professional football within the walls of prison

Before being committed to prison for the offence of causing death in a mob action, popularly known as mob justice, I had played the game of football. Little did I know that this skill would be my main source of living in a four-year period in prison, while waiting for the trial for my involvement in mob justice.

While having a drink in my local trading centre, a thief had robbed an elderly woman and a mob had descended on him, beating him into a coma. Twelve people, including myself, had responded to the call of social responsibility and carried the alleged thief to the health centre where he died on arrival. Leaving a dozen of us with the responsibility to explain and subsequently we were all charged with murder.

Once in prison, I found there were 19 football clubs, mainly taking the names of the clubs in the English Premier League, Spanish League, Series A, French League and of course the Bundesliga. The place was full of agents and soccer scouts. The scouts kept asking whether one was a player and if you said yes, they would give you a blanket, a free meal and a better space for sleeping.

Several agents offered me supper and the next morning I was taken for trials. My skills of ball control and dribbling were so excellent that I made it to the list of professional inmate footballers. As the negotiations started, I was counter offered a contract of UGX 30,000 (approx. $8) per season to my request of UGX 40,000 ($11). This included one properly reconditioned meal a day (upgraded with vegetables), an old mattress of about a foot large, two old blankets, two sets of soccer uniforms and a pair of playing boots.

Artwork of prisoners playing football – Nsubunga J. Alex

With these terms, I became the third highest paid footballer. The offer came from Barcelona, but Manchester United offered to pay more at UGX 35,000 ($9) including the other benefits listed above, so I later signed up with Manchester United football club. With these terms, I became the third highest paid footballer. I was unleashed to fans at my debut in which I scored two goals.

I was at Manchester United for 6 seasons (a season being 4 months), where I scored 106 goals before moving on to Inter Milan. With Inter Milan I received UGX 38,000 ($10) per season for three seasons, before moving again to Organgebees for UGX 20,000 ($5) per season for two seasons. My prison football career ended at a little-known club called Feyenoord due to an injury. I retired from football and, fortunately, was acquitted by the Kampala High Court.

Playing football in prison helped me to survive on local resources considering that my relatives never visited me. Besides that it was a source of physical exercise, it also kept me away from depression and it got me known by many organisations that sponsored the tournaments.

Our writing skills project remains popular in prison, and provides a creative outlet for inmates.
Insights from inmates: Playing professional football within the walls of prison
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