Prison Officers Champion Prisoners’ Rights Promotion
Joseph Okodan is a good-natured 34-year-old prison officer at Kole Prison where he also serves as a Human Rights Advocate, providing basic legal support and advice to the inmates at the prison and functioning as a link between them and the community.
On any given day, his work involves tracing sureties on behalf of one or more of the prisoners. This may involve physically traveling to and meeting with potential sureties to explain matters, or making phone calls to notify a potential surety, or passing on a message from an inmate. “I give the inmates simple and accessible information on justice procedures as a way of ensuring that they understand their rights, legal obligations and the processes exercised and enforced in court”, Joseph says. He is well prepared and equipped to do his work because in December 2013, he was one of 22 prison officers from 8 prisons in Oyam and Apac Districts who participated in a Community Based Human Rights Advocates (CBHRAs) training organized by African Prisons Project (APP). The training program covered topics including the rights of an accused person, how to behave in and around court, the jurisdiction of courts in Uganda, bail rights, procedures and formalities, pleas and trial procedure and sentencing including mitigation and appeals.
Most prisoners at Kole have benefited from Joseph’s acquired skills as he is always on hand to relay vital information and to offer assistance. The Mukulu Boma (Head of Prisoners), 26-year-old Bonny Opio, despite only being at the beginning of his thirty six (36) months jail term for theft and burglary, says he does not regret his time at Kole as he has had the opportunity to gain knowledge on human rights and the justice system from Joseph. Bonny only wishes he had met the CBHRAs earlier. “I wish I had met the CBHRAs when I was still on remand, they could have helped me to apply for bail because I did not understand what was required of me at that time. Nevertheless I am a happy man because they have given me courage and hope during my time in prison.” The information passed on by Joseph has had a ripple effect as beneficiaries such as Bonny have further disseminated it to fellow prisoners. “As a leader, I am using the information and knowledge acquired from Joseph to advise my fellow inmates who are still on remand and yet have no idea about court procedures and what they can do to secure bail” Bonny notes.
Joseph further reveals that the Information Education Communication (IEC) materials used in the training have completely changed his thinking, enhanced his knowledge and given him the confidence to help the prisoners’ different situations. He urged that this capacity building initiative be continued and extended to other prisons so as to benefit inmates all over Uganda.
He says that as a result of the project, the welfare of inmates has improved as their rights are understood and respected, not only by the prison officers, but by the prison leadership too. As a result, many have been able to access justice. “Our biggest partner is the Uganda Prisons Services and building the capacity of the officers in the prisons is essential to ensuring that our objective to ensure respect of human rights is achieved. “ Agnes Nakirya, APP Program Officer remarks. In the next year, APP plans to conduct a peer educators training program on similar topics in which some prisoners including Bonny will participate.