Reaching the Goal

Because the opening ceremony had occurred in Bushenyi prison the day before while most of our team was in Mbarara, and because the prosecutors and many of the defense lawyers from Mbarara traveled the sixty minutes to Bushenyi the next day to keep the momentum moving, our final prison project day hit full stride right out of the blocks.

And it was a good thing.  Bushenyi’s prison population is just under nine hundred, fifty of whom are civil debtors and six hundred of whom are “on remand” – arrested and just waiting for a lawyer and a trial date.  Many have been on remand for five years, just waiting for someone to do something.  (Before plea bargaining got started two years ago, many were waiting seven years on remand – lots of work still to do, but progress is being made).  As we walked in, well over a hundred prisoners crowded in toward us, hoping and praying their names would be called.

When the prosecutors arrived at around 8:45, we quickly distributed among the seven teams the thirty-five files they had brought with them.  By 9:15, we had a Ugandan lawyer for each team and things were rolling.  Over the course of the day, a driver repeatedly returned to the prosecution’s office to retrieve more files, as we devoured each new batch.

All of our American lawyers were fantastic and led their teams ably.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two in particular, however.  Utah trial Judge Mike DiReda (my law school classmate) and Los Angeles Public Defender Brad Siegel brought with them a wealth of plea bargaining experience, and, over the course of these ten days, substantially improved the country’s understanding of the practical aspects of criminal case preparation and plea bargaining.  Not only did they provide hands-on training for the thirty-five prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges with whom we interacted during the prison project, but (as will be discussed in a subsequent post), they helped lead the Second Annual National Plea Bargaining Conference attended by more than one hundred top judicial and legislative officials.

At one point during last Friday’s work in Bushenyi, an inmate assigned to one of the teams told them he wanted to plead guilty even though he wasn’t guilty and even though the court file contained no substantive evidence against him.  He had been on remand for four years and had no confidence that his case would ever be called for trial.  I had remembered hearing the prosecutor the day before mention that a group of cases were going to court on July 15th.  A few follow-up questions later, we learned that this prisoner was on the list.  When he was informed of his impending trial date, he was overcome with emotion, and gratefully withdrew from the program.

Nine hours after we arrived, our team had reached agreements in fifty-six of the sixty-four files we had been given.  In fact, Mike DiReda’s team reached an agreement for an inmate who hadn’t even signed up for plea bargaining.  This happened when one of two co-defendants reached an agreement and informed the team that his co-defendant was also in the prison.  Mike asked if he could speak to the co-defendant, and twenty minutes later, the co-defendant had also happily reached an agreement on his case.

Those of you who have read my recent book, Divine Collision: An African Boy, an American Lawyer, and their Remarkable Battle for Freedom, might remember that Henry is in medical school in Bushenyi – the western Uganda town containing the final prison on our summer program.  Providentially, the prison project week coincided with Henry’s second of three final exam weeks as he completes his second year of medical school.  After his last exam of the week concluded at around 3:00 p.m. on Friday, he made his way to the Bushenyi prison.  Having a large group of Uganda Christian University students on our team made it somewhat easy for me to get Henry into to the prison by simply declaring that he is a student who is on our team.  False?  No.  Misleading?  Of course.  Sue me.

Joline hugged him like a son she hadn’t seen in four months, and our students – most of whom got to know Henry during his six-week trip to the United States earlier this year – mobbed him like he was a pop star.  We had initially hoped to insert him into one of the groups to serve as an interpreter, but he wasn’t fully confident in his ability to accurately translate the local language spoken by most prisoners – he is still mastering this, his eighth language.  For me, I can speak English reasonably well and can order with moderate precision off of a Taco Bell menu.  That’s the extent of my language skills.

As the 4:30 p.m. lock-up time approached, we convinced the warden to extend the deadline by two hours as we were still making excellent progress.  By 5:45, we reached the end of the files the prosecutors had been able to locate, and yet there were still nearly a hundred inmates who still wanted in.  Once again, promises were made (and subsequently kept) to the prisoners that the Ugandan lawyers would return and resume where our teams had left off.

This left only two things to do.  The first . . . was a USA vs. Uganda soccer match.

Earlier in the day, Andrew (my Ugandan counterpart), the prison warden, and I conspired on how we would end the team’s week of tireless work.  I conscripted Joline into the plot, and she went around to each group covertly recording what she guessed were the team members’ jersey sizes.  I sent one of our drivers off to track down four new soccer balls, and purchased a beautifully woven trophy/cup made by one of the inmates.  For his part, the warden sent a couple guards to buy a cow and three goats.

Somehow, word of the impending soccer match leaked to the inmates who ringed the makeshift playing field at 6:00 and waited anxiously for us to join them.  As our team members changed into shorts and donned the Ugandan Cranes jerseys Andrew had acquired for them, the excitement swelled.  When the respective players lined up at mid-field to shake hands, Team USA consisted of attorneys Aaron Echols, Austin Watkins, Darren Gardner, and Mike DiReda, Global Justice Program Manager (and all-around prison project MVP) Jenna DeWalt, and students Greg Lewis, Matthew Chung, and Megan Pepper.

Even though the Ugandans were the home team, they graciously ceded the decidedly downhill slope to the visiting Americans.  They also generously agreed to allow us to wear shoes while they played bare-footed (only a few of them even have shoes).  Just before kickoff, I yelled to the assembled masses that the match would last about fifteen minutes, with the winning team being awarded the prized cup I held high.  The warden translated.  The crowd roared.  The whistle blew.  The game started.

About a minute in, a full volley from a Ugandan midfielder struck Aaron full in the face.  Such a blow would have killed a lesser man, but Aaron brushed it off like a lazy jab from a drowsy fourth-grade girl.  A minute later, Austin tangled with a Ugandan striker and spilled headlong onto the hard red dirt like Michael Phelps entering an Olympic pool.  His knee opened up like a Wal-Mart at 6:00 a.m. on Black Friday.  Not to be deterred, Austin staunched said bleeding with a handful of said dirt and soldiered on.

Clearly sensing both soccer talent and prison project value, the already boisterous crowd punished their vocal cords every time Jenna DeWalt got the ball, which was quite often.

Defenses held strong and neither side seriously threatened to score for the first eight minutes.  Then it happened.

Judge Mike DiReda, who, even at the tender age of “fitty,” knows his way around a soccer pitch, beat the left fullback on the outside and bore down on the keeper from the keeper’s right.  Rather than taking a shot from a sharp angle, Mike crossed the ball to a streaking Darren Gardner (half Mike’s age) who punched the brand new ball between the aging posts into an invisible net.  The goal instantly spiked the decibel level to that of an Ozzy Osbourne concert the moment he bit the head off a rat.  The Ugandans were more excited than we were.

The last few minutes witnessed several shots on our goal, but Greg Lewis defended our net as if he were the secret love child of Hope Solo and Jim Craig.  When the final three whistles trilled, the thrilled crowd rushed the field to congratulate the gladiators on both teams.  Before I awarded the cup to Team USA, I allowed the keepers to swap jerseys.

Keeper Shirt Swap

Keeper Shirt Swap


Shirt Swap 2

Greg will forever treasure the fraying, formerly white tank top he received.  (Greg gave the Ugandan keeper a Pepperdine law shirt, which will serve as an enduring reminder to the inmates from whence we came).

After the crowd noise died down a bit, I previewed the final event of the day while the warden translated.

“We are grateful to you for allowing us to come and visit you here at the Bushenyi Prison.  We thank you for your sportsmanship in the soccer match.  We pray that your cases will move forward quickly and that you will be reunited with your families soon.  Even though we were awarded the cup, we would like to award you the prize.”

I turned and pointed to the large cow and three goats tied to a tree about thirty yards beyond the field and continued.  “Our team of lawyers and students gathered money together and bought for the men’s prison a cow, and for the women’s prison, three goats.  We will slaughter them now and you will have meat tomorrow.”

Standing ovation.

We had previously been told that the prisoners would be honored if we were the ones to usher our animal gifts into the great beyond.  I briefly considered wielding the panga (machete) myself, but thought better of it when I realized that the butchery would be forever memorialized on the interweb.  Two of our lawyer members stepped into the gap – Darren Gardener and Austin Watkins.  Two of our students had initially also volunteered, but one backed out in deference to his animal-loving girlfriend (good call, “Ricky”), and the other got squeamish once he witnessed Darren kneel next to the pinned down bovine and open up its tonsils to ready inspection, which, in turn, unleashed a crimson firehose that sprayed the shins and shoes of those within a twenty-meter radius.

When Darren finished with Bessie and stood to face the assembled onlookers, one could not be blamed for flashing back to any of the recent slasher films – he was straight out of central casting.  Blood misted his face, stained his shirt, flowed down his arm, and dripped from his panga.

I will spare you the details of how Bayou Austin transformed a bleating goat into a bleeding goat.  Suffice it to say that this wasn’t Austin’s first rodeo.  And since Darren was already stained by his new profession, he dispatched the other two goats with quick precision.  Within moments, a team of prisoners had assembled to begin the process of transforming cute and cuddly into nutritious and tasty, something the prisoners only otherwise get on Christmas.  (Several of our team members were befuddled by the scene of a dozen inmates charged with murder, aggravated robbery, and other serious crimes wielding razor sharp machetes in the presence of other inmates, guards, and guests.  None of us felt even a little bit afraid.  This would NEVER be the case in the United States).

After a quick plea bargaining session with the warden, I secured the offending panga as a souvenir for Darren, as you can see prominently displayed in the team photo below.

Team USA

Prison Project Week, Team 3 (Austin, Missy, DT, and Ugandan students)

Prison Project Week, Team 3 (Austin, Missy, DT, and Ugandan students)

While we were gratified to provide the inmates with a memorable day and a free meal, our prayer is that our efforts will free them from both their physical bondage in prison, and from their spiritual bondage as those whose poor choices landed them in prison seek forgiveness from their victims, from their Creator, and from themselves.

Bushenyi Team Photo (with cup)

Bushenyi Team Photo (with cup)

With week two of our three-week trip in the books, we turned our attention to an enjoyable weekend of appreciating the beauty and majesty of God’s creation in Africa.

Kicking off safari (Matthew, Megan, Henry, DT, Saba)

Kicking off safari (Matthew, Megan, Henry, DT, Saba)

Safari Elephants from our rickety boat

Safari Elephants from our rickety boat

Lion Around . . . (that was bad)

Lion Around . . . (that was bad)

A mom and her adopted son

A mom and her “adopted” son

A report on the final, conference-filled week will be coming soon.

1 reply
  1. Kari Coppinger
    Kari Coppinger says:

    Oh my goodness! Such descriptions!

    Praying with you that your “efforts will free them from both their physical bondage in prison, and from their spiritual bondage as those whose poor choices landed them in prison seek forgiveness from their victims, from their Creator, and from themselves.”


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