First impressions of life in prison


First impressions of life in prison


Amri Rigby has joined our team in Uganda for 9 months whilst he works on a script for a screenplay about the life of one of APP's changemakers. A Fulbright Scholar and Sundance-winning short film director, Amri shares with us his first impressions of the prison community in Uganda. 

“Inside prisons we have brains, brains that can move mountains.”

This quote, from William Okumu, a law student recently released from Kamiti Maximum Security prison in Kenya, is the single statement that stood out most to me in my research before coming to APP in Uganda. It’s the one that made my heart come the most alive when I imagined what I would encounter here - the prospect of seeing inmates who, despite having many turn their backs on them, had chosen not to give up on themselves. They are still pursuing purpose behind prison walls. 

I had no idea what to expect. I had never stepped foot inside a maximum security prison before. 

In the US, most of my perspective on prison was informed by TV shows and docu-series about the injustices of the prison system. Naturally, this molded my expectations. I wondered if there would be a great deal of strife between inmates and officers in Uganda. I wondered if the inmates would be as violent toward one another as what I had seen represented in the media for US prisons. 

Amri (center)

My first time visiting prison in Uganda was anything but what I expected. 

When I first visited Luzira Women’s Prison and saw a woman holding her baby, I had my first realization of the solemn reality of prison. It’s something I had read about while I was researching, but the words I read could not capture the sorrow of the reality I saw in front of me. I could only imagine how many other women and children were in prison. I wondered whether their families came to visit often. And what became of the connection between mother and child once the mother can no longer take care of her inside prison.

An experience that surprised me was seeing the close connection between inmates and officers. I expected that relationship to be purely antagonistic. But after visiting, I’ve learned that there is more room for nuance. When I observe the interactions between inmates and officers at the Luzira prisons, I see a great deal of trust and respect between the two. Inmates work regularly with their officers -- in offices, in fields. Due to the image of the American prison system I was accustomed to, I never expected to see the officers encouraging the inmates, having a personal stake in their future. But here, I see officers who are truly invested in the inmates’ wellbeing. 

At Luzira Upper Prison, I saw the legal aid clinic for the first time. As the University of London students and paralegals discussed how they can best advocate for their clients, I saw the room beat with aliveness and a sense of purpose. I saw their eyes determined with hope; their faces flickered with a grounded sense of confidence and dignity. 

Seeing APP’s vision in action was the most rewarding feeling I have experienced here. The clinic was a living example of the fact that imprisonment should not be a barrier to meaningful action in the lives of others -- that anyone anywhere should be able to contribute to building up their community. In turn, I saw men and women in prison instilled with a hope that was sturdy. However marred it may have been by whatever wounds they had sustained in their lives, it was here to stay.

Thus far, my journey has been full of surprises. I can only imagine what awaits in the next 7 months of my time in Uganda. It has been an honor to work with APP and to meet the inmates whose lives are changed by its work.