Before we started prison week, I was nervous and a little bit scared to sit and talk with prisoners. I feared how I might react when they sat in front of me and accepted all of the facts in their file that they had raped a four-year-old girl or killed a one-year-old baby, and they were ready to plead guilty. To see the people that ruined a girl’s life or permanently ended another’s was extremely nerve-wracking. However, before the week started, Greg Lewis (another student intern we’ve nicknamed “Pastor Lewis”) prayed over our group and said something that really affected me. In praying to God for help throughout prison week, he asked God to help us remember that these prisoners are humans too and they are children of God just like us. That really struck me, and it made an important difference for me throughout the week.
Instead of feeling hate towards the prisoners when they sat down in front of us, I looked in their eyes and saw human beings. Some were extremely remorseful, and we learned that they did what they did because of awful circumstances in their lives that led them to make bad decisions. Even though a few of these people were on murder charges and were facing sentences of 35 YEARS – DEATH, all I wanted was for them to get out of prison. I saw where they came from and I felt for them. Life can be really hard, especially in Uganda, and I felt compassion for them despite the fact that they had committed such serious crimes.
Without getting into details, I want to share a few facts from the woman’s case that affected me the most. Let’s call her Alice. Alice is only 22 years old, and is in prison on a kidnapping charge. Alice was basically bought when she was 12 years old to be a wife to a man with HIV. He infected her with HIV and ruined her life in several ways. A few years ago, Alice and her husband hired house help to move in with them. Alice’s husband started cheating on her with the house help (which is unfortunately the most common occurrence here), and impregnated the woman. The baby was born HIV positive because Alice’s husband was infected with HIV. A baby born with HIV has an extremely difficult life, and Alice knew this because she has HIV too. Alice felt hopeless and desperate, so she kidnapped the baby to be raised in another village. There are some other details I’d like to spare, but the baby was found dead a few days later illegally buried in an area nearby where Alice was living.
Alice is younger than me, yet she’s been through something unimaginable to me. She sat in front of us, bawling her eyes out and hyperventilating as she told her story, and I couldn’t help but cry with her. All week during prison week, I tried my best to maintain professional demeanor and control my emotions, but this last case I dealt with broke me down more than any other had. The worst part was that you could see in her eyes how sorry she felt and how she never meant to do what she did. She was in a desperate situation that led her to make terrible decisions. I felt so conflicted. Alice did commit the crime, and as our societies dictate, she has to serve time in prison because of it. But Alice was different than other criminals, and it broke my heart to see her suffering in a Ugandan prison where facilities are less than optimal.
Alice accepted a plea bargain, which we felt was her best option. If she had gone to trial, she likely would have received at least 30 years. We got her a 15-year plea agreement, and with the Remission program here (like “time off for good behavior” in the States), Alice will serve nine more years. She was happy to accept the plea, but at the same time, she was devastated to spend nine more years there. She told us that she has no family and no one that loves her. Her husband officially left her when she was sent to prison, and now he’s off living somewhere else with another woman. We had to encourage her to keep taking her HIV medicine that the prison guards give her every day, to not give up hope, and to remember that life is a blessing. I say that knowing this is easier said than done.
I left her with a few bible verses to remember and read if she wants to, and I told her that I would pray for her every day. I’ve thought about her more in the last 48 hours than I have thought about anything else. I felt helpless actually. I wanted more than anything to do more for her, but we did all we could within our circumstances. I’ll admit though that it felt awful walking out of the prison that day. It was tough leaving her behind knowing I was getting back to my wonderful life, and she’ll be there for at least nine more years.
Alice’s story is only one of many other prisoners like her. There are so many prisoners in Uganda with difficult and heart breaking stories to tell. This week, I gained a new perspective on what it means to be a prisoner in Uganda, about the struggles they go through, and how to be compassionate to people who committed even the most heinous crimes.