Ministering in a Ugandan Prison

Ashley Moore stands with a woman inmate at the prison. They are both holding the distributed bag of necessities, which includes things like toothbrushes, soap, sanitary pads, and a small blanket.

It’s subtle, tucked away in Matthew 25, but it’s there.  Jesus tells us that if you have visited the sick and those in prison, then you have visited Him.  They are included in the list of the ‘least of these,’ among those who are 'hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, and sick' (25:31-46). The prison we visit is located 3 hours away from Kampala.  It is one of the newer prisons in the area, constructed only five years ago, but the newness doesn’t take away the devastating situation at hand.

Over the past five years, our development workers have fostered a relationship with this particular prison.  Last summer, a SLAM mission team from North Carolina conducted a free dental clinic for a number of the prisoners, and also encouraged them with a time of worship, a sermon and even a soccer game against the inmates. This year we have continued our visits. Nearly every Sunday this last month we traveled here to hold a service for the male and female inmates. We have given listening ears to their stories, and distributed some hygiene packs and blankets.

For me, the most impactful moments accompanied our time with the female inmates.  There are only 20 of them, a minority when compared to the male population at the prison (over 600).  They are precious women, full of smiles, laughter and songs.  Some are over 80 years old, others are first-time mothers who have their babies with them at the prison.  They all have one thing in common – being in prison. Our team has been able to encourage the women with our testimonies, words, and songs, but I think what they found more impactful was our presence.  The fact that we would actually come visit them at all was astounding to them. 

They told us some of their stories – why they were there, what they had done, the circumstance surrounding their imprisonment.  Most of them claimed that they were wrongfully accused or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. While these prisoners have the option to appeal, many of their sentences are actually shorter than the several years-long appeal process. Not to mention that if you don’t appeal within 14 days, you must hire a lawyer to appeal for you, a service that most Ugandans could never afford.   If they do appeal and are again found guilty, then they must serve their original term in addition to the time spent in prison during the appeal process. The legal system itself works against these women.

In Uganda, you are guilty until proven innocent.  Therefore, many of the women have been in captivity for over a year on ‘remand,’ meaning that they haven’t been to trial or sentenced yet.  There is no bail for them. So they wait out their term, not knowing the status of their families, or children, or lives outside of their prison walls.

Our team brought care packages with us to try and meet some of their most basic needs – toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, blankets, and other items. I’ve never witnessed such gratefulness.  ALL of the women, from oldest to youngest, jumped up and down, then burst into songs of thanksgiving.  To us, it was the least we could do.  To them, it spoke volumes.

Visiting prisoners helps me to understand why Jesus included them in his list of the ‘least of these’--they are in desperate need. Some, of them, maybe even many or most, are likely wrongfully accused. Imagine their life. Guilty until proven innocent. A mother with a baby. I remember the heroes of the faith that were also prisoners: Joseph, Jeremiah, Paul. Others need to know the power of forgiveness, that they can be different. Either way, I hope our visits help the prisoners to know that someone sees them and acknowledges that they are still human. Jesus promotes them much further than this, he says that visiting them is visiting him! I am glad to have visited him today.

Written by Ashley Moore