Uganda prison Scout programme helps inmates find their feet.
Robert is a serial offender. Jailed in the sprawling Murchison Bay Prison in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, he faces two more years behind bars.
But a year ago he joined the Scouts, and now he’s a Patrol Leader in his block. It’s changed his life.
“The Scout activities are great,” he said. “I’ve learned new skills and developed a different perspective on life. I have two children on the outside and I want to make them proud again. Scouting should be available to all.”
Robert is one of thousands of inmates who has been able to join the ‘Scouting in Prison’ programme that was started by Ugandan Scouts in Murchison Bay Prison nearly two years ago, funded by Messengers of Peace. The programme now operates in 64 prisons across the country, offering Scouting to 4,500 convicts.
“Scouting is known as an instrument that brings people together as one huge family,” explained Caroline Ajulong, the Uganda Scout Commissioner for the programme. “Why can’t it also be a family that ex-prisoners belong to as well?”
For many Ugandan convicts, freedom can prove as challenging as incarceration. Many are released with nothing; no job, no money and no network of people to look out for them. Unsurprisingly, many return to crime. Some, like Robert, end up back in jail.
The Scouting in Prison programme is designed to equip convicts with the kind of skills that will help them survive once their released. It starts by training prison warders in the skills and values of Scouting so they can establish Scout groups and offer technical and vocational training in their institutions. Any profits the prisoners make from sales of their products while they’re still in jail is given to them on their release so they have some money to tide them over.
Crucially, each prison Scout group is also partnered with a local Scout group so that the inmates have a ready-made, and respected, network of support when they go back home to their communities. Evidence from the 86 earliest prison Scout groups suggests 95 percent of the inmates who joined the initiative had not offended again.
Sharif was jailed at the Naguru Young Offenders Centre after he was convicted of theft.
“When my parents died, I was left to take care of my younger brothers and sisters alone,” he explained of his predicament. “It was always a struggle to find money for food, school fees and the bare essentials. With no other option, I began to steal from my neighbours, a little at first and then more. So I ended up here in prison…”
Just 16, he joined the Scout group because he was worried about having a criminal record at such a young age – fearful it would prevent him from finding work and looking after his siblings.
“Young offenders in Uganda are all given a standard three month sentence for their first offence,” explains ‘Mama’, Director of Naguru. “Up to now, we have tried to prepare these children for a positive future, but when they are released they are still seen as ‘criminals’ by everyone back home.
“In Uganda, the stigma of being a criminal is almost like a life sentence. How can we change that? What we have been looking for is a well-respected and brave partner to act as an intermediary between the Centre, the young offenders and the community. More than that, we need a partner who is in every village, in every town and who can provide a support network for our young people.”
As part of the programme, Sharif has learned how to make soap and baskets to sell in the market. He’s also acquired tailoring skills. Having been a Scout in prison, when he returns to his community it will be as a Scout, not as a criminal.
There are 150,000 Scouts across Uganda with hundreds of thousands of alumni from all faiths, cultures and languages. Scout groups are often at the heart of community life.
“We have been able to replace the criminal gang leader – who previously was the only hope for these ex-prisoners – with the Scout leader in their community,” explained prison warder turned Scout leader Edison from the Naguru Centre. “As you can imagine this opens up a totally new prospect for young men like Sharif or Robert. It’s a total reset.”
The Scout groups act as a bridge between prison and a normal life, providing support to newly-released prisoners as they return to their homes.
“It is very simple,” explains Scout leader Gidds Bambaga. “Rehabilitation cannot stop when the prisoner is released. That’s when the real work starts.”
Sharif will be joining Bambaga’s group. They’re currently working on a project to improve water quality in the village because many of the poorest people in the community don’t have access to clean water, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases like typhoid. They raised $400 through the Scout Donation Platform to install a water filter, which is expected to last for the next five years.
“Everybody has something to offer so an extra pair of hands is going to be helpful,” Bambaga says. “Because we as Scouts have a responsibility to help our community, when Sharif or one of his peers returns to our group, he’ll have to fit right in and join our community right from the beginning – just like any member of the group. He will be out every day with the team, helping to identify local needs and finding ways to resolve those needs.”
Sharif will help educate local people about the dangers of dirty water, and work on raising more money to support the project.
“Sharif will no longer be a ‘thief who stole from the community,’ but a leader of Scouts who serves his community,” says Bambaga. “Thanks to his training, he’ll have his own little business and his brothers and sisters will have a role model to look up to. We all make mistakes, but it’s leaders who learn from them.”
In Murchison Bay, Robert agrees. Scouting has given him new direction. He is convinced it will help others too
“Scouting should be available to all,” he says. “The new kids arriving here as young offenders deserve better than we used to have. They must have a different fate than me, and with this Scout programme they will get it. I will make sure, as the Scout leader here in this block, that they get that support. They won’t end up back here again.”
Photographs: Yoshi Shimizu