Alternatives to Prison in East Africa -Tackling the Punitive Approach

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A few miles south west of Kampala, past the turn off to Buddo, lies a small wooded area a bit bigger than a football pitch.  The field is surrounded by a trench, mostly about ten metres deep but with larger holes in places. The ground is well tended and a couple of small fires burn, one next to a tree another down in the ditch, where a young man, clasping a bottle sways drunkenly about , surrounded by  spears  and other weaponry.  This is Kareteke, a deadly royal prison where at the end of the 19th century King Kalema dispatched his relatives who sought to depose him from the throne.  Men women and children were hurled into the then 30 metre trench where protruding spears and spikes ensured a slow and painful death.

The atmospheric site is a reminder of the sometimes brutal punishments that were used in Uganda and acts to dispel the romantic notion, still propounded, that traditional ways of dealing with crime and resolving disputes were limited to compensation and reconciliation. It is true that the pervasive use of imprisonment arrived only with the Europeans and that prisons have like all colonial institutions created some horrible distortions in development. But   punitive practices and attitudes both pre-date and outlive the colonial experience in East Africa.  Asked in a recent UN survey what sentence would be appropriate for a young burglar who had stolen a colour TV for the second time, more than half of respondents in Uganda favoured prison, more than 60% in Kenya and two thirds in Tanzania.  Smaller percentages favoured fines or community service than when the same question has been put in other parts of the world.

Any sentences of course can only be applied in cases which reach the courts. Some are dealt with in other ways. The Uganda Human Rights Commission last year reported on their efforts to combat escalating incidents  of mob justice through radio broadcasts and media briefings,  listing  several cases where police detention beyond the legal limit were occasioned by a fear of crowds taking the law into their own hands. It was suggested during a recent visit to Luzira Prison in Kampala that one reason  the 3,000  detainees  prefer to endure gross overcrowding rather than  seek to escape the custody  of their 200 captors may well be that they are safer in prison than outside.

In this context, courts in East Africa struggle to square notions of proportionality with community expectations of harsh sentences. Long periods of imprisonment are regularly imposed for relatively small thefts.  Alternatives to prison have struggled to find a role.  While courts can impose community service in place of a prison sentence of up to three years in Kenya and Tanzania and two years in Uganda, it is most commonly served for a matter of hours or days for very petty and often victimless offences- drinking, loitering, and creating a disturbance or for bye law infractions.

The introduction of sentencing guidelines may help to locate community service higher up the sentencing tariff but without efforts to tackle the punishment culture, greater use of non custodial sentences could provoke more vigilantism. The argument – which one might expect to play well in low income countries – that it is better for an offender to   benefit the public through unpaid labour than cost the public while idling in prison – has not proved as persuasive as it might. This is despite the fact that in some cases  community service work can  be hard- literally breaking rocks in a municipal quarry in the Rift Valley for example .

One way in which the climate of opinion might be tackled would be to ensure that the specific victim of a crime as well as the broader community benefits from an offender’s unpaid efforts The law requires community service orders to involve public works of one kind or another. It could be amended so that a proportion of the work could benefit the individual or family who has lost out through the offence. This might involve the offender working on the victim’s land, or contributing his  time to assist  in other ways. Providing direct reparation could make community service a much more attractive alternative to a short spell in prison than are the often invisible and make work arrangements which characterise some existing community service placements.

Of course safeguards would be needed and the approach should be piloted. But it offers the prospect of a penalty which provides compensation as well as punishment, thereby increasing the incentive of the courts to impose it, the victim to endorse it and the wider community to support it.


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