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Hello from Uganda! In this blog post, interns Anna Wakeling and Emma Melvin would like to share some phenomenal stories from the end of the month of June.

The Prison Project (by Anna)

I had never been inside a prison before, but I’ve heard tales of the tight security measures that American attorneys must navigate to gain access to their clients. Compared to that expectation, the three Ugandan prisons I’ve visited this summer have had a distinctly relaxed atmosphere. The security check was no more invasive than you’d experience at a large concert venue or sporting event.

Inside, the inmates and guards interact calmly and cooperatively. You find out later, however, that many conditions are not ideal. Many prisoners only eat once a day. Their sleeping spaces are overcrowded by up to a factor of six (and usually not climate-controlled). They have curfew at 4:00 p.m. Those serving convicted sentences wear orange uniforms and are kept almost completely separate from those being held until trial, called remandees, who wear yellow uniforms. You can distinguish the newest arrivals by the vibrancy of the colors of their clothes.

In Ugandan prisons, remandees usually far outnumber convicts. Before COVID-19, the plea bargaining process had reduced the total number of remandees below the number of incarcerated convicts for the first time. However, long lockdowns limited the access that local advocates had to their clients in prison, reversing that proportion. The Pepperdine team and their local partners have been slowly pulling the number of remandees back down to pre-pandemic levels. As plea bargaining camps like our week-long prison project help to reduce case backlog in the local courts, the shorter the prison time a remandee can expect to serve between arrest and trial, and the sooner he will receive a definite sentence (which is highly preferable over indefinite imprisonment).

As mentioned above, the fact that convicts and remandees don’t mingle can make it hard to explain to a new remandee the value of plea bargaining. If convicts could share how many decades they will spend in prison, due to the severity of their crime OR the fact that they had no access to legal representation, remandees might have a clearer picture of what to expect when they plea bargain. However, our partner students and interpreters did a great job explaining the process to them. Many remandees only spoke Runyankole, the local language, which added another layer of challenge for us to figure out together.

Monday morning, as we were preparing to depart for Mbarara main prison, our leadership received a last-minute request from the Judiciary to send half of our team to Bushenyi prison nearby so we could run two prison projects concurrently. This was a first for everyone. We had only brought enough equipment to support a full team at one prison. However, we split neatly into two cells in less than an hour. Thankfully we had enough vehicles to get everyone to their respective assignments with a minimum of back-and-forth. I was so proud of our teamwork.

At Mbarara, where my group was assigned, we met our partner students from Uganda Christian University in Kampala and got split into smaller teams: each with a Pepperdine-affiliated attorney, a local advocate who practices in the Mbarara area, one or two American students, and one or two Ugandan students. Many remandees who speak fluent English were also available and eager to help translate. Those who’d been around long enough to learn the criminal system proved to be passionate advocates themselves, earnestly encouraging fellow prisoners to take the plea deals that they recognized as good. Witnessing the remandees advocate for each other was astonishing and humbling to watch.

For a day and a half, we worked on magistrate court files. These are petty offenses that would be misdemeanors in America — theft of small items, assault and battery, etc. Starting Tuesday afternoon after lunch, we began to receive High Court case files to work through. These are mainly capital offenses like murder, aggravated robbery, and defilement (rape of a minor). The details of these files were a bit harder to stomach, especially when they contained pictures.

During these harder cases, I’d expected to feel conflicted at my part in reducing the sentence of anyone who had provably committed the ultimate crime against humanity. At the same time, I appreciated the importance of our role in helping the legal system reach people who could not afford representation, conserving the Court’s resources so it can achieve maximum efficiency, and giving remandees (as well as victims and their loved ones) a piece of certainty about their respective futures.

We’d been split between the two prisons again on Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday, everyone was together at Mbarara main. Thursday was a half day followed by lunch and a closing ceremony.

One thing I kept in mind during the week is that the Ugandan students we worked with will be the next generation of attorneys practicing in these courts, and they will need the most experience talking to the judges and prosecutors here. I spent most of my time letting local students take the lead. When they or a local advocate crossed the courtyard to try to make a deal with a prosecutor, I would tag along as the “assistant” to work on the relevant documents and observe while they conducted the negotiation. I hoped in this way to show the proper deference to the Ugandan Judiciary as it works on building out its own plea bargaining system within its existing public defense network. We were simply invited to help, not to do it for them.

I do need to throw in a plug for how great Emma was at the prison. Her experience is mainly in transactional law, and she plans to pursue more of the same as we continue our legal education. Nonetheless, she started handling many smaller criminal files on her own almost immediately and demonstrated excellent client management skills. (I swear Emma did not write this. She scored the shorter half of this blog post, so I’m paying her back by bragging on her and she can’t stop me.)

During the speeches at the closing ceremony, the principal judge of the magistrate court emphasized that remandees must be realistic about the gravity of their crimes when they approach the bargaining table. For example, he said, when you go to the market to buy a bottled water worth 1,000 shillings, you know better than to start negotiating from 100 shillings. Likewise, if you’re accused of murder and the case is strong, you shouldn’t be upset when your advocate can’t convince the prosecutor to offer you five years.

After the closing ceremony, our group was scheduled to leave — unfortunately for some remandees who had previously been hesitant. Many were now encouraged by the principal judge’s speech to try bargaining. We were reassured that the local advocates and UCU students were going to continue the camp after our departure, now that more judges were back from the national ADR conference they’d been attending that week and available to work through more cases faster.

As a farewell gift, we donated two soccer balls for the prisoners’ recreation, a goat for dinner at the women’s prison, and a cow for the men’s prison. The remandees wanted us to stay to do some penalty kicks. While we desperately wanted to accept, we were already past due to be on the road to our next destination.

We bid fond goodbyes to our student coworkers and promised to get back together once we were all in Kampala again. Then it was on the road once more.

In an encouraging conclusion to the week, we learned Thursday night that our team had collectively resolved 332 cases. Sixty-one of those resulted in a remandee receiving immediate release! Those specific cases came in a few varieties:

  • Someone’s remand period might have been at least as long as his final sentence, meaning he was free to leave immediately.
  • The remandee was innocent of the crime altogether and our team was able to get her charge withdrawn.
  • The offense was minor enough that the judge agreed to community service and let the remandee go home while completing it.

Even in the cases that were not resolved while we were there, our leaders reminded us that it is no small thing to provide access to justice either. Just the chance to speak with an advocate for free and become acquainted with the governing law for the first time was a service to the remandees that they will still be able to benefit from in the future.

The Safari (by Emma)

To top off the excitement of the Prison Project, our team had the cherished opportunity of going on a safari and boat cruise in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

What we didn’t realize is that the game drive would start before we ever made it onto a safari vehicle. On our way to the park, we saw elephants (Anna’s favorite) hanging out on the side of the road, right across the street from some children playing soccer on their school’s field. 

We woke up very early to catch the sun rising during our safari, and boy was the view incredible.

It was actually fairly cold being out that early, but the temperature difference helped us understand why some of the animals only come out at night. In fact, it’s rare to see hyenas on a safari, since they are nocturnal, but we made it out early enough that they were the first wildlife we spotted! Throughout our game drive, we saw water bucks, antelope, all sorts of African birds, hippos (including a baby hippo), water buffalo, several families of warthogs, and a pride of lions.


Later in the day, when it was hotter outside, we did a boat cruise and met all the animals who headed to the water for their daily drinks and wallowing. We saw dozens of hippos just a few meters away from us (including an albino hippo off in the mud by himself, which made us wonder if the rest of the herd shunned him for being too pink). We also saw some elephants giving themselves a bath. Two of them looked like they were having an actual dunking contest, like you do with your friends in the shallow end of the pool—except you and your friends don’t have trunks you can poke up out of the water when you’ve been under for too long. Our boat cruise brought us within about 70 kilometers of the Congo border, as we were on the edge of a waterway shared by the two countries.

There is nothing quite like observing the natural beauty of Africa with a team of amazing advocates after a week of seeing justice be served for the guilty and innocent alike in the Prison at Mbarara. Webele nyo, Uganda!

This post was written by a Center for Global Justice intern. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of Regent University, Regent Law School, or the Center for Global Justice.