Masindi Prison – Day 76

Posted on May 18, 2012


The door to Masindi Prison is grey, heavy and made of steel. I lifted the door knocker outside and banged hard, after a few seconds I heard the jangling of keys and the sound of a bolt sliding across a latch. The door swung open to reveal a smartly dressed guard wearing a red beret and a cream coloured uniform. Corporal Alfred was not there and I was slightly concerned that this could set my interview back for a second week, but I tried to remain optimistic.

I had brought Moses Lemi with me in case I needed a translator and we waited patiently to one side as the other civilian visitors were answering a roll call of names. After leaving our belongings behind, nothing is allowed through, we were led through another locked door to the superintendent’s office.

“Oh God, is he gonna want a bribe,” I thought to myself. “A bag of sugar just isn’t going to work inside here.”

Patrick Kanyonyi has many teeth, maybe more than Mukaali (my ex-Boda guy I no longer use) and that’s saying something. He was surprisingly straight-talking. No mention of the hassle it would be or the lack of resources. After looking over my research permit, British student ID card, Moses’s Forest Ranger ID and satisfied that my request was for academic purposes, he took us into what can only be described as ‘The Yard’.

First hurdle passed I thought.

“How many prisoners do you have here?” I asked looking around at the convicts dressed in bright yellow stripped pyjama-looking prison attire walking past me.

“There are around 800.”

“Wow that’s a lot, and what are they in for,” I continued, also noting how young many of them were.

“Murder, robbery, defilement, rape, we keep the most serious criminals here,” he said.

I tried not to look worried. The first thought that went through my head was how lax the security was between visitors and cons. The prisoners freely wandered around interacting with each other and the public who had just been admitted in. This would never happen in Britain and I know, I’ve been inside Armley Prison in West Yorkshire and Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute. If someone wanted to start trouble, civilians would not stand a chance.

We were shown to a room where a ‘man-child’ called Joseph Kule went through the records book to find us our case study. Joseph is 30 years old but looks more like 15, his petite build and height don’t do him any favours either. But he tries to talk tough, maybe it’s to compensate for his “small man syndrome”.

He disappeared for about 20 minutes while Mose and I caught up with what’s been happening in both our lives in the last week. When he returned a sheepish looking character stood lurking behind him. Shaved head, filthy feet and hands, short legs, and stocky build. This was our case study.

“He only speaks Alur, I hope you do,” barked Joseph as he left us with the inmate.

Hurdle number two passed – Moses knows Alur.

We went outside into The Yard and pulled up two chairs while the prisoner sat cross-legged on the concrete floor. Throughout the interview he barely gave me eye contact but would occasionally glance at Moses.

Ironically he is also called Moses (surname: Omirambe) and he is 35 years old. A repeat offender this is his third time in jail and his crime is illegal pit-sawing in the Budongo Forest Reserve. He is originally from Biiso and more interestingly he is from the same village as the cutter I interview on Monday, Kalengeja. We had a precious 40 minutes with him and this is the information he told me:

“I’ve been cutting in the forest for about ten years and yes it’s always been in Budongo. The timber that everyone wants right now is Ngoma ngoma (Cordia millenii) and Mujwa (Alstonia Boonei). Ngoma ngoma is used for boats, everyone knows that and we all know it’s protected. The demand is high and the price is good, right now it has gone up because the timber has finished. I mean in the forest only the small trees remain. These will be for our children to come and cut as they will take time to grow.

“I was cutting Mujwa at the time when I was arrested. I was with three other people but they managed to run away. We had gone back into the forest to cut another tree. The wood carriers had taken all the planks out of the forest and we wanted to get more timber, that’s when it happened. I tried to escape but my feet got caught in the vines in the forest and I fell, two rangers got me and arrested me.

“It happened in the day, around 11am, they brought me straight to the high court and I was held in remand. Those who are remanded are usually convicted they have no chance of getting out. I was sentenced to one year and I have been in here around seven months. But this is not my first time inside. I’ve been in jail two times before for cutting. The first time I was jailed for six months and served three months; the second time I was jailed for five months and again served three months; now they say they will release me early, I am leaving July 15th.

“Ask him what life is like in jail,” I said to Moses Lemi.

The inmate paused and sighed deeply: “We all stay together, we eat pocho (maize flour) and beans, we sleep in the same ward. I live with the murders and robbers. We are only separated during the day when we have to work. I am not afraid. But every weekend you are canned five times if you do not give up your soap to the leader. No one does anything, what can they do? The guards don’t care.

“Prison life is not so bad. I am treated well and I get looked after. When I get out and go home I will have no job and it is difficult to look after a family (four children and one wife). The only thing I know how to do is split timber so of course I will go back to the forest. If there was an alternative job I would not waste my time going into the forest.

“Of course I think I have been unfairly punished. I know why they have put me in here but else can I do? I miss my family.

“I don’t fear the forest but I fear being caught again because I do not benefit from cutting as I end up in prison. When I was released the second time I stayed out of the forest for about one year and one half and had only gone back for two months when I was arrested again.

“When I work in the forest I go with people not alone. We sleep in there for either one month or two months, we don’t come home we live in there. The timber we cut is ordered from a buyer in Butiaba or Panymur. I split the money we get with my partner, if it is good we can get USh$400,000 each (£105). Then we hire another two people to help cut the timber into planks. They get paid per piece maybe Ush$3,000 (less than £1). The amount of timber we cut varies but it is usually around 250 pieces in two months, around four to five trees. I sell my timber for about USh$12,000 per piece.

“The rangers they are there. But if you come across one or two you can negotiate with them and offer say Ush$40,000 or Ush$50,000 (£10-£13). Bribes happen of course they do and they let you continue cutting. There is only one other pit-sawyer in Masindi Prison that I know, all the others are taken to Isimba Prison. There is a farm there and prisoners who are used to being in the forest are also good at digging, so they take them there to work.”

As we wrapped up the interview another two men clutching gum boots were being escorted to the cells. I nodded in their direction.

“Are they from the forest?” I asked.

The inmate replied “Yes, looks like they will be held on remand, but they will be going to jail.”