Michael and I spent Wednesday with Celesta, leader of Product of Prison. Before meeting her she’d already made a big impression on me - it takes a courageous person to uproot to Uganda and set about bringing rehabilitation programmes to some of the country’s most notorious prisons - not to mention that she was still only in her twenties at the time. Once again, I was struck by the commitment, resilience and drive of this leader.
Celesta took us into Jinja Main Prison, a maximum security prison serving 1,000 prisoners in Uganda’s fourth largest city. Celesta has been working in the prison for the last 2 years, alongside the prison’s welfare officer Martha, and Paddy, one of the prisoners, to develop and run rehabilitation projects for inmates. Like DOT Uganda, they employ a ‘train the trainer’ model where four inmates were trained in ICT skills; in turn, they train other prisoners. Paddy, alongside the other trainers and some of their students, welcomed us into ICT room. It was a small, dark room equipped with four laptops. They told us what they had learned and what a difference it made to them - being able to focus on something and learn something that would help them find work when they leave prison.
As my first time in any prison I didn’t know what to expect, though I was open minded and sure that Celesta’s work would be having a positive impact. What I wasn’t expecting was to come across some of the most welcoming and inspiring people I’ve met. Paddy had been in prison for 23 years, serving a sentence for a non-violent crime, in horrendous conditions. The prison may not have been worse than any other Ugandan prisons, but the fact that 1,000 inmates are squeezed into a prison with capacity for 300, with no privacy, no mattress and no freedom, would be more than I could bare. But having spent 23 years there, Paddy’s outlook was incredibly optimistic. Before even being approached to work with Celesta, he had initiated enterprising projects in the prison, taking the little money he had earned and investing it in materials to make bags and jewellery. He used his time to train his fellow inmates to make beads using tiny slithers of paper which they would painstakingly weave together to create baskets and bowls. He saw the value in empowering the people around him, giving them skills and hope for their future, even though until his sentence was changed in recent years, he himself was on Death Row.
As we said our farewells and left the prison, I was overwhelmed by the importance of freedom and how much we take it for granted. We were able to walk out of the gate, drive away and go to have lunch. The men in Jinja Main Prison would stay there, continuing their day as ordered by staff and end it sleeping 50 to a room, awaking the next morning at 5am ready to start another day, exactly the same as the last. While they will never leave the walls of the prison until finishing their sentences, they are being given a better chance for a positive future by people like Celesta, Martha and Paddy, and are embracing it.
Pictured: Paddy, second to left, with his fellow ICT trainers