Déjà vu enveloped our team on Wednesday morning during last week’s prison project, as we started the day’s activities in plastic chairs under portable tents once again. This time, though, we were in Mbarara rather than Fort Portal. After gathering into our seven teams and beginning the process of interviewing the assembled inmates in a prison designed to hold 350 prisoners, but which housed over 1,200, we paused at around 9:45 a.m. for the opening ceremonies. One of our students covertly distributed a sign-up sheet where we all placed 1,000 shillings (30 cents) into the betting pool on when the ceremony would end. I went with 11:15. I lost. Badly.
Once again, there were several speeches, including one from me. This time, however, I remembered to introduce my lovely wife. After an inmate choir performance, the reading of an inmate grievance letter, and a few other speeches, the Principal Judge took the microphone. Fifteen minutes later something really bad happened.
Before I tell you what tragedy befell the ceremony, let me tell you what I ate for breakfast that morning. I started with two eggs, a sausage, and some pineapple. My mistake was then taking a piece of toast and slathering onto it a thick layer of narcolepsy. At least that’s what it must have been.
As the Principal Judge delved into his speech, I slipped through Queensryche’s door into silent lucidity, drifting in and out of consciousness with the frequency of a hyperactive metronome; I could have easily been mistaken for a life-size bobble-head doll.
At least I was on the third row and shielded from the view of the 1,200 prisoners and others in front of me.
I was actually on the front row, wasn’t I? Yep, just a few feet from the third-ranking judicial officer in the country. How could it get any worse?
In an effort to fight off Mr. Sandman, I pinched my wrist, stabbed my palm with my thumbnail, fiddled with my shoes, and constantly adjusted my posture. All of this left me about as effective at fighting off sleep as if I had eaten a fistful of Ambien thirty-seven minutes earlier. At one point, I decided to cross my legs at the knee because my ten knee surgeries (yes, ten) has left them a little, shall we say, sensitive to pressure. Didn’t help at all.
As I once again skateboarded down a steep ramp into a magic new dimension, Jimmy popped in for a surprise visit. Like an auditioning Rockette, I nearly pulled a hamstring as I catapulted back into consciousness. Thinking quickly, I made an exaggerated show of re-crossing my legs rather deliberately in a vain attempt to make it appear that I always kicked my legs when I crossed them. I fooled exactly no one.
Seated directly behind me, Joline was doing her best to keep me from embarrassing myself (and her) by jack-hammering me in the back and neck, and gave me what can generously be called a smack after my kickboxing display.
Mercifully, the speechifying ended at 12:45.
We spent the rest of the day in our seven groups (American lawyer, Ugandan lawyer, two American law students, two Ugandan law students, and a prisoner). The success rate mirrored the first day in Fort Portal – the process of explaining this new plea bargaining system to a new set of defense lawyers and prosecutors is laborious and time consuming, yet well worth it.
That evening, a few of us joined the Principal Judge at his nearby ancestral home for an hour of reflection and strategizing on the next steps for plea bargaining. On the two-hour drive back to the safari lodge, Andrew (Ugandan project manager) received a call.
“Yes, my Lord. Thank you, my Lord. That is very good, my Lord,” was all we could hear before Andrew hung up.
“That was Judge Batema, the resident High Court judge in Fort Portal,” Andrew reported. “He took forty pleas today and entered sentences on them. The prisoners met the team on Monday, reached plea agreements on Tuesday, and received their sentences on Wednesday. Nothing like this has ever happened in this country.”
Needless to say, we were quite pleased. Over the course of the next two days, Justice Batema took pleas from another fifty.
The team left before dawn on Thursday morning and returned to Mbarara for the second day at that prison. As was the case in Fort Portal, the second day was much more productive as the local lawyers got the hang of things and as the prisoners developed trust in the seemingly foreign process unfolding before them. Because we were moving to the Bushenyi prison for Friday, Andrew and I separated from the group and accompanied the Principal Judge to that prison for the opening ceremony. Fortunately, I managed to mostly fight off the sleep demons during this re-run of Wednesday’s events.
There is no such thing as fast food in Uganda, particularly outside of Kampala. So as we travel around the country on the prison project, we bring with us our own cooking team. Each morning, they set up their makeshift kitchen outside the prison to cook two kinds of rice, beans, matooke (cardboard flavored banana-type thing that is boiled and mashed), gonja (plantains), chapatti (flat bread), and ground nut sauce (made from grinding and boiling small nuts), chicken, and beef. At around 1:30 p.m., they set up buffet tables under the tents so we can eat quickly and resume work. When Andrew and I finally made it back to Mbarara, the team was just finishing lunch.
As the afternoon wore on, the crowd of prisoners waiting to have their cases added to the program swelled. With the help of a prison guard, we prepared a list exceeding 100 of those we didn’t have time to meet with and left it with the Ugandan lawyers who promised to continue in our absence. (We have since learned that this was largely done).
As we were working for two days under the shadow of soccer goalposts, it seemed only fitting to leave behind a few soccer balls. I rarely have brilliant ideas, but lightning struck as the driver returned with the four balls I asked him to buy. We hadn’t brought a change of clothing and didn’t have time for a full-scale soccer match, but we did have time for a penalty-kick sudden-death shootout – five alternating 10-meter penalty kicks for each side.
Suffice it to say that this idea was well received by the inmates and our team. One of our students, Greg Lewis, was selected as our goalkeeper, and he blocked their first shot. The crowd on our side erupted. I took the first shot for our side. Big mistake. Not only has my thigh been throbbing for a week now since my attempt to pull my team into the lead, but the Ugandan keeper added insult to my substantial injury by batting my shot away like a hovering mosquito.
Back and forth we went with the keepers dominating the strikers. The prisoners’ fourth shot snuck just inside the post, just under our diving (in his suit) keeper.
When the Ugandan keeper deflected the final shot by Austin Watkins, the prisoners erupted and started singing and dancing with the wooden cup we had secured from a local wood craftsman – a fitting end to two days of intense case preparation. The Ugandan prisoners could use a bit more winning in their lives.
Tomorrow, I will report on Friday’s day at the prison, which included a visit from Henry, who is in medical school just a few miles from the prison.