May 4, 2017 | By Nicole Banister (JD ’15) — It was April 11, 2017 when I first accompanied the defense attorney, Aloysius, to Kauga prison. We were there to talk to the inmates about plea bargaining and get the names of remand prisoners interested in potentially pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. Plea bargaining is still new in Uganda and so it happens in “sessions” and requires pretrial detainees to register in order to participate.
When we got to Kauga prison, we met briefly with the Officer in Charge before being directed to the women’s section of the prison. There are only about 10 women currently in Kauga prison and only 2 still on remand. Aloysius stood in front of the group to explain why we had come and asked each remand prisoner whether they might be interested in participating. After talking with each pretrial detainee, Aloysius noticed an older woman in the corner with “debtor” printed on her uniform. He asked the prison guard about the woman. We learn that Nakagwa Joyce has been in prison for about six months as a civil debtor. In Uganda, if someone owes a debt and is unable or unwilling to pay, they may be put in prison as a debtor. This woman lost a civil case and was unable to pay the damages, so she ended up in Kauga prison. After speaking with Joyce, Aloysius writes down her name and case information as well as her sister’s phone number. He tells her he’ll see what he can do to follow up her case.
About a week later, on April 19th, Aloysius and I are waiting to meet with the Chief Magistrate and Resident State Attorney about preparations for the plea bargaining session. Because the CM and RSA are busy, Aloysius says he’s going to stop by the Registry and ask about this civil debtor, Joyce. He politely asks the clerks in the Registry if they can find any information about this case. The clerk looks it up in the computer case management system and informs us that the civil case has been closed and moved to the archive. We walk over to the archive room and start asking if anyone can assist us with this file. When he hears which case we are looking for, a man named Joseph comes over to us. He is a bailiff in the court and he knows this case very well. He tells us that Joyce had originally brought a criminal case against a man for stealing her goat. When the case came up for trial there was insufficient evidence and it was dismissed. The man she had accused of stealing then turned around and filed a civil defamation case against her. Joyce is a very poor woman and a single mother. We learn that her oldest daughter has severe mental health issues and that Joyce is responsible for her care. When the civil defamation case was brought to court, she was unrepresented and lost the suit. She was ordered to pay damages to the man, the same man who stole her goat. Being unable to pay, Joyce was put in prison as a civil debtor. We met her about six months later.
After learning all these details about the case, Aloysius suggests maybe he should write to the Magistrate who heard the civil case. Joseph the bailiff tells us that the Magistrate is there now just finishing up court and that if we can wait we might be able to meet with him. We decide to wait for a bit to see the Magistrate.
During the meeting, Aloysius and I explain how we came to meet Joyce in the prison. Joseph the bailiff explains the details of the case and how Joyce is a very poor woman, unable to pay any of the damages. The Magistrate listens to our pleas for him to do something about this poor woman sitting in prison. He turns to Joseph and asks if he can type up a production warrant right now. Joseph jumps up out of his seat and rushes to the secretary next door. He comes back with a production warrant form. The Magistrate signs the warrant and writes the date and time for Joyce to appear before him. Aloysius and I look at the form and it says April 19, 2017 4:30pm, meaning the Magistrate wants to see her today in thirty minutes!
This is where the running frantically around the court and prison begins.
We first take the signed and sealed production warrant to Kauga prison (around the corner from the court), but we are told we need the specific prison official in charge of taking prisoners to court to be the one to bring the warrant. A bit crazed, we jump back in my car and drive back around the corner to the court to find the prison official. After a brief greeting to the prison boss, whom the court clerks referred to as “the fat man,” we locate the female prison official we need. She takes the production warrant and then tells me she needs ‘facilitation,’ this is Ugandan law enforcement code for bribe. I look at her, even more frantic at this point, and think how could this be the one thing standing in the way of Joyce’s opportunity for release. I tell her I can’t pay her facilitation but that I have a vehicle and I will drive her to the prison. She pushes back saying she still needs something. I point to Aloysius and tell her that we are not being paid for the work we are doing right now, but that Aloysius is assisting Joyce out of compassion. Finally, she agrees and we get into the car. Once in the car with this prison official, I forget about the facilitation nonsense and learn all about Rebecca’s career as a prison guard and her sister in Sweden, and her nine-month old son. We reach the prison at about 4:20pm.
The other guards in the prison tell Joyce to change her clothes and gather her things. They say she is “so happy” and that she prays everyday to be released from prison. I’m told to sit on the bench until Joyce is ready to go. Trying to keep my composure a bit and not cry at the sight of the prison yard and the thought of Joyce being freed today, I chat with the other guards. One male guard laughs and asks me “what do you call her?” meaning “why do you care about Joyce, how are you related to her?” I am honestly so overcome with the weight of what is happening that I just laugh and say we’re sisters in Christ, which in Uganda results in multiple repetitions of “amen, sisters in God.”
Joyce comes out with her possessions in a plastic bag and a nice blue dress on, a welcome change from the prison mandated yellow uniforms. She kneels at the end of the bench and seems nervous but excited. We exchange the few words she knows in English followed by the few I know in Luganda. She asks me, “am I coming back here?” I try not to lose it at that point and just say “I hope not,” although I’m not sure if she understood.
Once everyone is ready we go back into the car, with Joyce sitting in the backseat. We move around the corner to the court and my heart is racing a bit. I still don’t know what the Magistrate is going to do. We think he will probably release her, but without the Plaintiff present it might be more difficult. Aloysius and I wait for the Magistrate to finish up the other cases he is working on until he calls us in. Joyce stands next to the bench where Aloysius and I are sitting. Aloysius whispers some things to her, “tell him about your children, and how you are sick, how you are too poor to pay.”
Aloysius and Joseph the bailiff plead Joyce’s case for release. They explain that she has been in prison for more than 6 months and that she has children at home to take care of. The Magistrate turns to Joyce and asks if she has anything to say. At first she says no, but Aloysius encourages her to say something. She tells the Magistrate that her children have suffered with their only parent in prison and that she is sick and in need to treatment.
The whole process takes less than 15 minutes before the Magistrate says the words “after hearing from the debtor, I hereby release you and inform the creditor that he must find another way to recover the money.”
And just like that it’s all over.
We all walk out of the Magistrate’s office and sit on the bench outside. Aloysius ensures that Joyce understands what just happened. She is tearing up as she repeatedly thanks us, “webale nyo webale nyo.” Aloysius is beaming and I ask if we can take a quick photo. Joseph the bailiff comes back and tells us that he will give Joyce a ride home because he knows where she lives.
Aloysius and I then walk out to the car. It’s about 5:30pm as we begin the drive back to Kampala. Aloysius and I are both a bit stunned and can’t help but laugh about the strange and beautiful thing that just happened. We didn’t come to the Chief Magistrate’s court in Mukono today to get a debtor out of prison, it just happened. We marveled at God’s timing and Aloysius kept saying “we saved a soul.” I dropped Aloysius near his house along the way and continued the drive back to Kampala by myself.
What a strange, incredible, holy day; setting the captives free.
I didn’t even notice the lines of cars creating hours of traffic that I would inevitably sit in before reaching home. I just kept thinking about Joyce and her kids and what a joyful reunion that must be.
Aloysius didn’t intend to get anyone out of prison that day, he just showed up. He didn’t forget the poor debtor he met the week before and when he got to court he simply asked a few questions.
Everything that happened on April 19th occurred because someone with the ability to do something just showed up. Aloysius’s ability to show up and ask questions, which lead to this incredible outcome, all stems from his role as a lawyer. Lawyers are frustrating to most people but they are life saving to others. Joyce just needed someone with the necessary knowledge and skills to bring attention to her case. She needed an advocate.
Every person in prison deserves such life saving “showing up” power.