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Prison education: where teachers live like kings behind bars

Every morning, learners around the country gather at their respective schools to study.

They follow the same syllabus as the rest of the country, but in the prison formal education system, things are a little unique. In the second of a four-part series, PRISCA BAIKE explores how education is conducted behind bars.

During the release of A-level results last month, a man in a dark suit, identified as Gilbert Niwamanya, was introduced to the media at the Luzira Upper prison. The man, who is not an inmate at the prison, was identified as the head teacher of what some know as Luzira Inmates secondary school.

Shortly after Niwamanya’s speech, Dennis Mujuni, an inmate in a yellow pair of trousers and a button-up shirt, unlike the other inmate-students, clad in shorts and non-button shirts, introduced himself as the inmate head teacher. To anyone else, it was strange that a school had two head teachers.

According to Anatoli Owakubaruho Biryomumaisho, the senior welfare and rehabilitation officer at Uganda Prisons, this is the norm in prison.

“Every prison school head teacher has an inmate co-head teacher and every teacher sent from the ministry of education has a co-teacher within prison,” explains Biryomumaisho. He later adds that the ministry only sends teachers while the head teachers are trained prison officers with an education background.

Student inmates revising in the computer centre that also serves as a library

He explained that a head teacher, who doesn’t have an in-depth understanding of the prison system, cannot effectively run a prison school due to the kind of students that they handle.

Biryomumaisho says the prison education system cannot function without co-teachers and co-head teachers as they coordinate inmates and teachers.

“They are the mobilisers of enrolment and retention; so, we must have them. They foster teamwork and good discipline within the school system,” Biryomumaisho said.

While the teachers from the education ministry are paid by government, co-teachers offer pro bono services. However, they are motivated with sugar, rice and soap, among other items, that are supplied by NGOs and from within prisons.

Being a co-teacher also comes with benefits like having your own room and getting priority treatment in prison as they are respected within the prison system.

As we worked on this story, I was accompanied by five prison officers touring the ongoing classes at the men’s section in Kigo prison. I’m momentarily captivated by one teacher, who is conducting a chemistry lesson about crystallization.

For a moment, I am taken back to my own chemistry days, getting hit by the harsh remembrance of how I hardly enjoyed the subject. This in-mate teacher, however, had me hooked to his lesson; I took pleasure in how he, with a constant smile, enthusiastically articulated his statements to his ardently attentive students, before he stopped to have a word with us.

As I interview him, I see my reflection in his shiny black shoes, which efficiently complement his neatly pressed orange prison uniform. Peter Ssesanga, who doubles as a deputy head teacher of the secondary section, has been teaching chemistry and physics at this prison for the last six years and he is glad to serve his time meaningfully. The motivation may be little but the benefit of keeping his brain active, while carrying on with his profession is priceless.

“I enjoy teaching people who never thought they could get education,” said Ssesanga. Interestingly, he is looking forward to the day that sciences will be introduced at A-level in prisons. He makes one believe that teaching in prison is not a nightmare, as many people might imagine.

Biryomumaisho explains that criminals change a great deal as soon as they get to prison and many of them are well-behaved people.

“A female teacher can walk through the male prison wards and conduct her lessons without any problems,” says Biryomumaisho. The male students are also very protective and respectful of their teachers, especially the females who outnumber the male teachers. However, he clarifies that male co-teachers are not allowed in the female section and vice versa; each section has its own co-teachers.

Prison teaching is interactive and in form of discussions since the students are mature people, who have an independent mindset as Biryomumaisho notes, citing an example; they may just not feel like studying because it is simply too hot or too cold. This, he says, requires a teacher to understand that these are already stressed people and it is important for them to be understood.

“It is hard psychologically but when you get used to it and handle them well, it becomes easy,” says Biryomumaisho.


Like other ideal schools, prisons also have libraries and computer centers. From the libraries, students can borrow all sorts of books, both educational and leisure books according to Daphne Namudde, the welfare and rehabilitation in-charge at Kigo prison. 

The computer centre at Kigo prison is a spacious room with 14 study points and a huge table with about 20 seats around it. This table serves as a reading point.

From the centre, students can enroll for a certificate in computer applications and those who have never interfaced with a computer can get to learn the primary components of a computer. The centre, as expected, does not have internet. Students rely on software called the encyclopedia, which serves a purpose akin to Wikipedia.

Apart from the normal curriculum, the students receive non-examinable trainings in social entrepreneurship, philosophy and creative writing, among others, in a six-week annual programme sponsored by the Iowa-based Drake University in conjunction with Muteesa I Royal University.

A welfare and rehabilitation staff shows the prison library to the media

For the non-student inmates, a separate life-skills training program in disciplines such stress and anger management, self-esteem and critical thinking are provided. These are to ensure holistic individuality and successful reintegration to society and to minimize the chances of relapsing. 

At the break of dawn, head counting within their respective residential wards is what precedes all the day’s activities. Thereafter, breakfast is served.

Like in most schools, classes normally start at 8am and end at 4:30pm; break and lunch time inclusive although bad weather such as fog or hailstorms distort their programs as inmates are meant to be within their wards in such circumstances.

Sgt Nelson Ezama, the coordinator for schools in prison, said classes in prison run from Monday to Friday.

“We respect weekends and we have holidays as well. We try to align our programmes to the national standards,” Ezama said, adding that students sit for both internal and external exams every term.

Students, who consistently perform poorly within one year, are discontinued from the formal system and encouraged to go for vocational studies. Issues of indiscipline at school, according to Biryomumaisho, are handled by counseling.

“We don’t punish them as they are already under punishment. But where necessary, we have a set of regulations with a systemic way of giving disciplinary action,” Biryomumaisho says, emphasizing that caning inmates is illegal.

Students at prisons with farms are exempted from working as they have to attend classes. While inmates must retire to their wards at 3:30pm, an allowance is made for the student-inmates, to stay in class to enable them complete their day’s work. 

After their evening meals (around 7:30pm), while students outside the prison go for evening revision classes, inmates, on the other hand, are expected to stay within their wards and maintain silence with lights out.

This makes it hard for them to read or discuss, leaving them with the toilets as their only place to revise and discuss as they are the only places with lights throughout the night.

During national exams, candidates are fed on a special diet consisting of fried beans, rice and chapatti to make them feel special.

“Such food makes them happy, which greatly helps them during examinations,” said Niwamanya.


Education in prison is entirely free, with government and NGOs providing scholastic materials. All students have to do is to be willing to learn and enroll for the service. Those who had already started education from outside prison have to provide authentic documents before they are enrolled into the system.

A study at the University of California, Berkeley, USA has shown that a country’s crime rate is directly proportional to the level of education of its citizens. The joint study, with Lance Lochner of the University of Western Ontario in Canada and Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Los Angeles, concludes that the less literate a society, the more likely less educated folks are to commit blue-collar crimes such as murder, rape and burglary.

“We estimate the effect of education on participation in criminal activity accounting for endogeneity of schooling,” the study says.

Biryomumaisho, who has seen the study, adds that the more educated members of society have a tendency to commit white-collar offences, which include but are not limited to corruption, misuse of office and fraud.

According to the prisoners’ census of 2015, out of the 44,952 prisoners, 13.7 percent had never been to school, 23.7 percent had attended lower primary while 38.5 percent completed primary school by conviction time.

As far as secondary school education is concerned, only 19.1 percent of the prisoners had completed O-level while only 3.0 percent of them had completed A-level. Only a measly 2.1 percent of the inmates had attained tertiary education, with 350 prisoners being bachelor's degree holders while only eight had attained more than that.

“Most of the illiterate criminals only commit these crimes because of ignorance,” says Biryomumaisho, “Why would one rape or defile if he knew that it was a crime; [yet] he can actually propose to an older woman?”

It is such findings that actually validate education in prison as it checks the rate of relapse (re-offence) upon an inmates’ release.

So far, Uganda has the lowest relapse rate due to its comprehensive prison rehabilitation services. With a re-offending rate of 23 per cent, (nine mostly petty offenders), the country has been ranked the best in Africa and seventh in the world according to the African correctional journal and the international criminal journal respectively.


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