I thank them for fighting for my freedom
On Friday morning at around 11am 17 year old Sserunkuma, his mother and Charlotte, an APP legal officer, walked down the hill away from Upper Prison, towards Port Bell Road smiling. The torrential rain from earlier that morning had stopped and the feeling of freedom fought for and won was furthered by the scene of Lake Victoria stretching out before us.
Sentenced As An Adult
Sserunkuma had entered Upper Prison, at Uganda’s maximum security prison, eight and a half months earlier, on charges of robbery. At that point his age had not been established. His hearing took place and he was held on remand as an adult. Now we were sat opposite him drinking sodas at a cafe in Luzira talking about the African Cup.
Here we were able to ask him and his mother a few questions about his experience before he returned home. Sserunkuma could not suppress his smile and was excited about seeing his five-year-old sister and eating meat, rice and matooke again.
His mother, sat opposite, remembering her feelings of hopelessness at being trapped in the face of a system she didn’t understand and could not afford to navigate. “I was scared and desperate. I thought he was going to be there for at least ten years.”
In the early months of his imprisonment Sserunkuma had little hope or understanding either. Until he met some of the APP students.
Pascal and Canan are both law students and auxiliary paralegals. Last year, Pascal graduated from the University of London with a world-class law degree, having taken part in APP’s Justice Changemaker programme. Pascal has been involved in establishing the first legal aid clinic in Uganda’s largest prison.
The depth of support for this 17 year old, both legal and emotional, provided by these older prisoners was reflected in the moment before Sserunkuma’s release when he expressed his gratitude to Canan.
Sserunkuma said “Having support from people like Canan and Pascal changed my experience of prison. They told me comforting words. They even told me that I would soon be out and gave me a place to go to when I was struggling”.
Pascal’s sentence had begun many years before on death row. He has watched many clients walk out of the prison ahead of him, having received the same legal support from himself or his colleagues. Later this year, he will finally be released too.
Support for Juveniles
Sserunkuma also received support from the rest of the APP team. In particular APP’s legal officer, Charlotte, saw him almost every day until today. He described the investment of time, concern and emotional support Charlotte had given him, saying that, “Each day she came, she called me and spoke with me. Even on the day I was committed to the High Court, she was there to support me. She gave me hope”. However, the legal process which Sserunkuma embarked upon with APP’s support was not simple.
The Challenges of Confirming Juvenile Status
After six months remand, inmates are entitled to apply for bail unless the inmate is committed to the High Court. On the day of the hearing for Sserunkuma’s bail application, he was committed to the High Court. Charlotte points out that the red and white top that Sserunkuma is wearing today is the same top he wore that day. Inmates normally appear in court in suits. The top Sserunkuma is wearing is that of a child.
Lack of access to documentation is a recurring problem in many cases In Uganda and contributed to the error in judgement that led to Sserunkuma’s incarceration. Charlotte had contacted his parents many times hoping to track down the documentation needed to confirm his status as a juvenile prisoner. The provision of his birth registration files from the hospital where he was born in 2002 would determine where he would continue his sentence: in a remand home as a Juvenile or in Upper Prison as an adult.
Together with his mother, Charlotte travelled to obtain these documents only to find the hospital had burnt all its files prior to 2003. Access to documents is not always easy or possible for many in Uganda, with 20% thought not to possess their birth registration forms. However, being able to prove you are a juvenile ensures a maximum sentence of three years. In these circumstances it is difficult for the Justice Law and Order Sector to distinguish between adults and juveniles, and APP is working with other juveniles caught up in the adult prison system.
APP’s Legal Representation
Following this, the next step in pursuing his case was beginning the plea-bargaining process. At first, Sserunkuma did not want to engage with it, as it is often extremely confusing and overwhelming.
However, Sserunkuma was represented in court by Maureen Nuwamanya, APP’s legal aid advocate, who highlighted his mitigating factors and the ambiguities surrounding his age which could provide potentially large concessions for his case. As a result, she was able to secure for him a sentence of 10 months which he had already served, leading to his immediate release.
Throughout his imprisonment, Sserunkuma studied extensively in the legal aid clinic with APP’s encouragement to continue studying whatever his circumstances. He was inspired by Maureen’s representation and heads back to school on Monday, saying. “I want to focus on my studies so that one day I can be a lawyer or a judge.”
The Impact of Imprisonment on Families
Sserunkuma’s mother is a farmer. The imprisonment of her son doubled her workload. But now she smiles. She is excited to cook a big dish of matooke for him and host a small party to celebrate his return tonight, and says she will be glad to have another pair of hands back to help on the farm.
Before him and his mother catch a taxi back home, Sserunkuma’ emphasises that for him, “Saying thank you to APP is a must. I thank them for fighting for me, for fighting for my freedom”.
Help Ensure Justice For All
Families like Sserunkuma’s face overwhelming challenges when it comes to access to justice for themselves, or their children. From access to a lawyer to the absence of vital documents, as well as a backlog of cases - all this can mean prisoners are held for many months in over-crowded and confusing surroundings. Sometimes years pass with little understanding about their case or how to represent themselves.
We work with both prisoners and prison officers to empower those most in need of justice, to access it for themselves. We provide high-quality legal advice, training, and education, and see individuals like Pascal and Canan, as well as our staff and volunteers, providing legal awareness, support and sometimes representation to those who would otherwise have no access to justice at all.
Support our work and find out how you could join us in becoming a changemaker too.