Ugandan Wife?

Those who have spent any significant time in the developing world well understand the wide range of emotions Westerners experience when engaging deeply and personally with the local culture and citizenry.  Our student interns in Uganda this summer have developed a highly cathartic practice of gathering together over a meal nearly every day to share with each other the “highs” and “lows” of each day.

Last night, as our team of twenty-six reflected back upon the week-long, just-completed whirlwind through three adult high security prisons, we gathered in groups to share our “highs” and “lows” for the week.  Many tears were shed during this much-needed emotional exhale, but not nearly as many as were shed during the week.

When it came my turn to share, I started with my low for the week, which brings me back to last Sunday afternoon as the project metaphorically kicked its legs as it anxiously climbed into the starting blocks and waited for the clap of the starter’s pistol.  (My next blog post will provide a fitting bookend to the week with a description of my “high”).

My biggest concerns going into the prison project centered around (i) the availability of Ugandan lawyers to represent the prisoners, and (ii) the production by the prosecution of what Ugandans call “disclosures” – a copy of the evidence against the accused person from the court and police files.  Both of these critical ingredients for plea bargaining to be successful have been in short supply in prior projects, which is why I have been begging, pleading, and cajoling our Ugandan counterparts to ensure this advance work was done before we arrived.

On last Sunday afternoon, however, my morale was residing just a few meters north of the Mariana Trench.  After lunch, Joline and I accompanied Andrew Khaukha (project manager on the Ugandan side) to the Katojo Prison in Fort Portal for a pre-project scouting trip to ascertain (i) how many prisoners were interested in plea bargaining, and (ii) what type of facilities would be available to us.  We were heartened to learn that more than one hundred had registered to participate, but disheartened to discover that no public address system, chairs, tables, or tents had been secured for our work at the prison – this, even though the Chief Justice (top dog) and Principal Judge (third-ranking judicial officer in the country) would be traveling the four hours from Kampala to Fort Portal to ceremonially launch the week-long program.

That lack of preparation foreshadowed what quickly became my low for the week – we had no files waiting for us and only a couple Ugandan lawyers were confirmed for the next day.  This left me with a piercing sense of foreboding as I imagined having to tell the seven American lawyers who had paid handsomely for the privilege of devoting a week of their lives to trying to help a judicial system that struggled to help itself.

“Don’t worry, Prof, it will be fine.  Let me take care of it,” Andrew said on Sunday afternoon with orders of magnitude more confidence than I could even imagine at that point.

And yet, over the course of about three hours, Andrew had Harry Pottered into existence everything we lacked.  We rented four “hundred-person” tents and one hundred plastic chairs from a local hotel (they didn’t have any spare tables), and “hired” a reasonably effective PA system from a kid who met us at a gas station.

A handful of diplomatic calls to local lawyers produced a half-dozen promises to be at the prison at 8:30 the next morning, and a stern (though respectful) call to the lead prosecutor in the area led to him coming to our hotel that night during dinner.  While most of us ate, our “Secretariat” designed both electronic and paper systems to ensure that the thirty-five sets of disclosures were properly catalogued and evenly distributed to the seven teams that, by this time, consisted of (i) one American lawyer, (ii) two Pepperdine law students (one is actually a Baylor student who has joined our program for the summer), and (iii) two Uganda Christian University law students (we have been including UCU students in our prison projects for several years now).

Not only did the prosecutor deliver to us thirty-five photocopied files, but he also stayed and reviewed his copy of the files, and then wrote out initial plea offers for each of the thirty-five prisoners.  This would enable the teams to convey these offers to the prisoners during the interviews the next day.

For the next few hours, the teams reviewed and discussed the files in preparation for their work.

Austin Watkins  and team

Tennessee lawyer Austin Watkins, Missy, DT, and UCU students

LA Public Defender Brad Siegel, Cat, Jenna, and UCU student

LA Public Defender Brad Siegel, Cat, Jenna, and UCU student

Baylor Professor Brian Serr, Baylor student Megan Pepper, Mark, and UCU students

Baylor Professor Brian Serr, Baylor student Megan Pepper, Mark, and UCU students

Utah Judge Mike DiReda, Emily, Morgan, and UCU students

Utah Judge Mike DiReda, Emily, Morgan, and UCU students

We arrived at the prison just before 8:00 a.m. on Monday in an effort to get things started before the CJ and PJ arrived, along with their retinues and the press corps.  Our Nootbaar Fellow, Nicole Banister, is in Uganda for a year as a mediator in the Family Division of the High Court and is with us this week.  She and I (along with one of our students) were the only of our American team of twenty-six who had ever been in a prison in the developing world.  (Three years earlier, Nicole had been a student intern in Uganda during our first-ever prison project in an adult prison, which had actually taken place in this very prison).  Our team members’ wide eyes started to water a bit as the reality of the prison conditions bum rushed them.  As we walked in, the warden informed us that there were over 1,200 prisoners, even though the capacity was 318.

We were escorted into a concrete courtyard where all 1,200 prisoners were mingling with even wider eyes as the “mzungus” set up shop under the just-erected tents.  After we assembled into seven groups at around 8:30 (the agreed-upon starting time), we looked around in vain for the lawyers.  Though the ceremony was scheduled to commence at 9:00, no one besides us could be found.

This was completely expected, though, as a Ugandan event starting on time is a winged unicorn.  Not wanting to lose any time, we conscripted a guard to locate and sequester those prisoners for whom we had files so we could begin interviewing them.  By 8:45, we were rolling.

At around 9:30, local governmental figures began arriving, along with a few local lawyers, three of whom had participated in the project three years ago.  Fortunately, I recognized them, and they recognized me.  As they arrived, I briefed them on what we were doing and placed them into a group.

Finally, at around 10:00, the guests of honor, the press corps, and PA system arrived.  Fifteen minutes later, the speeches began.  Two hours later, they mercifully ended.  Among those speaking were CJ, PJ, me, the local mayor, the local High Court Judge, and a few others.  During his speech, CJ introduced his wife to thunderous applause from all present.

Soon thereafter, I spoke.  And yes, you guessed it – I completely forgot to even acknowledge my better half, much less ask her to stand to be recognized.  After I spoke, the emcee joked (in the local language) that I had been to Uganda so many times that I needed to get myself a Ugandan wife.  Everyone laughed heartily at this except, of course, Joline and me.

A few minutes later, the emcee called me and the CJ up to close the ceremony, telling me that CJ had some gifts he wanted to present to me.  These gifts were copies of the Ugandan constitution, the plea bargaining rules, and the sentencing guidelines – the tools we are using in this project.  After receiving these gifts, I seized the opportunity to seize the microphone to thank CJ and to take a shot at redemption.  “Thank you, My Lord,” I said because that’s how judges are addressed here, “we will use these tools as we assist the Ugandan advocates in delivering justice to these assembled prisoners.  For a moment, I feared you were going to present me with a Ugandan wife!  But my wife, Joline, is actually here with me, and I would like her to stand for recognition.”  I got the laugh and applause I sought from the crowd, and I think Joline will let me come home next week.

Phew.  Better late than never, right?

Eventually, six Ugandans advocates showed up, completing all but one of our groups.  In the afternoon, about five prosecutors arrived at the prison.  This allowed any group for which the prisoner accepted the plea offer – or who wanted to present a counteroffer – to move toward complete resolution right then and there.  In fact, about a dozen plea agreement forms were filled out, signed by the prisoner, signed by the Ugandan lawyer, and signed by the prosecutor.  All that remained was the taking of the plea in court, and sentencing by the judge in accordance with the plea agreement.  In Uganda, however, that last piece can take a really long time.

That night, several prosecutors, most of the Ugandan defense lawyers, and the local High Court judge joined us for dinner.  The prosecutors brought with them about fifty new files.  They hadn’t yet made photocopies, but they agreed to allow our teams to look directly at the original files – something that rarely happens – in order to allow the team members to prepare for the next day’s interviews.  This case preparation continued late into the night.

The next day, a crowd of prisoners who had been skeptical of plea bargaining assembled and asked to be added to the program.  There were over a hundred of them.

Case preparation continued in earnest until about 2:30, when we had to wrap things up and get on the road to our next destination.  At one point, I looked around and saw about seven hundred prisoners watching us from within a thirty-yard radius.  Not a single guard was around, yet we didn’t feel even a modicum of fear to be unprotected so close to so many accused of murder, rape, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, etc.

When the dust settled, the teams had completed settlement agreements on close to seventy cases.  While the American members of our teams were quite pleased with these individual outcomes, I was elated that the Ugandans (prisoners, prison officials, prosecutors, and defense lawyers) all seemed to understand the process and pledged to continue without us after we left.

Just after nightfall, we arrived at a safari lodge on the lip of Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is where we would be spending the next five nights.  Unfortunately, however, we weren’t able to enjoy the stunning view of the Park for several more days, as we routinely left before sunrise and returned after sunset.

More in a day or two.

4 replies
  1. Dolores King St.George
    Dolores King St.George says:

    Thank you for taking the time to blog about the Uganda Prison Project. My family, friends, and radio team has been devotedly praying for the people of Uganda, the lawyers that practice there, the government officials, and of course, the Pepperdine team and others, since they first arrived. We are now especially praying for the prisoners in the places you all visit. The Lord be with you all.

  2. Diana Limdwall
    Diana Limdwall says:

    I am so happy to be able to read about the program and the experiences from your prospective! It adds to the picture my son (who we can refer to as “Ricky”, lol) paints for us. It is an amazing program and has been such a life changing experience for him, and for us who get to live vicariously through his eyes.


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  1. […] have yet to be convicted of a crime – for more info, check out my professor Jim Gash’s blog HERE). I was first struck by the humility in her eyes as she approached my table asking for help. She […]

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