VICE World of Sports

VICE World of Sports Episode Guide: Luzira Upper Prison

In a Ugandan prison meant to hold hundreds, thousands of inmates gather around a soccer tournament unlike any other.

by Liam Daniel Pierce
26 May 2016, 3:50am

"This is a prison that erupted into a riot in the 90's—a massive riot. So much so that the national guard had to come in. But with a ratio of prisoners to guards at 35-to-1, there couldn't be a situation with more potential for danger that you could imagine in a prison: everyone in one place. But yet, everything went about peacefully. Even the guards; the guards aren't watching the prisoners—the guards are watching the game. You don't want to be the guy who got soccer turned off. So everybody's on their best behavior."

-Evan Rosenfeld, showrunner VICE World of Sports

Uganda by the Numbers

Uganda's population: 34,634,650

Number of estimated incarcerated people in Uganda: 39,830

Percentage of incarcerated to population in Uganda: .115 percent

Percentage of incarcerated to population in the U.S.: .693 percent

Uganda's GDP: $26.631 billion ($2,071 per capita)

U.S.'s GDP: $18.124 trillion ($56,421 per capita)

Uganda's FIFA Ranking: 72

Sport and Society

Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962 after being under their colonial rule for 68 years. The British-promoted brand of soccer built popularity toward the end of the 19th century, and so the game proliferated from missionaries and colonial armies to the Ugandan people. Railways carrying coffee and various other natural resources began to marble through the heart of Uganda, and the game was spread along trade lines. Eventually, the British-established school The King's School Budo developed into United Old Budonians Club, which would later join the Kampala Football Association, giving way to the post-colonial National Football League, established in 1968.

While the national league has a presence, a good deal of Uganda's talent is developed from pickup street ball. Naturally, soccer began to make its way into prison yards in a sort of loose organization of pickup games. What makes Luzira Upper Prison special is the extent to which they organize their soccer league—with 10 teams (named after popular European clubs like Liverpool and Arsenal), jerseys, cleats, netted goals, a 30-page set of rules, and a UPSA (Upper Prison Sports Association) president.

But Luzira is by no means the only prison to hold organized sporting events. Here are some other examples of prison sporting events:

Angola Prison Rodeo

Angola Prison Rodeo, started in 1965, rightfully comes under a lot of fire for being a bizarre kind of death match between inmates and one-ton bulls. Prisoners participate in events like bull riding and Convict Poker—where prisoners sit at a table while a bull charges. Last man sitting wins.

San Quentin Tennis

San Quentin, located just north of San Francisco, is perhaps best known for housing mass murderer Charles Manson. But among its sports rehabilitation activities is a top-notch tennis program, which brings in pro tennis players to play alongside inmates.

Handball

In prisons, resources are often scarce, and so sometimes the simpler the better. As our editor Eric Nusbaum outlines in his piece Handball Saved My Life: A Sport Behind Bars, often sports can be a key to maintaining sanity.

Thai Prison Boxing

In Klong Prem high-security prison in Bangkok, inmates box outsiders for money and even shorter sentences.

Catching Up With...

We chatted with VICE World of Sports producer Matthew Halmy, who—prior to his work with VICE—used to do a lot of foundation-funded projects in the California prison system. He was among the tight group of producers and filmmakers who were granted unique access to the Luzira Upper Prison for our episode.

What makes Luzira Upper Prison different from other prisons?

It was remarkably different. Just the vibe more than anything. It didn't have the super-thick tension in American prisons—in California prisons, the feeling of tension is omnipresent. Walking around Luzira, it did not feel that way.

We weren't escorted, unlike in the American prison system, which has layered security: there are gates, there's a lot of infrastructure regarding safety, and in Luzira, there's none of that. We were just walking around with hundreds and hundreds of inmates around us at all times, and I never had a sense of anxiety or impending danger or that what we were doing was wrong or that we should be careful.

Luzira doesn't run their prison with the same authoritarian control that an American prison does, and so there's more freedom. Some of that is because of incompetence and lack of resources. They can't run it super tight because they don't have the people or the things or the resources to do that.

In the interview with the warden, he said it—the guards are outnumbered 35-to-1, so they couldn't possibly strong arm order if they wanted to. So they're forced to take a more cooperative attitude towards life in a prison.

The episode talks about the huge number of non-convicted prisoners who are just awaiting trial. To what extent do the people awaiting trial add to the easiness—that they're not convicted criminals, per se?

I'd say that that's the thing that has the opposite of the mellowing effect. That's the thing that causes the most anxiety in that prison. In America, we have jails and prisons. Jails are where people who are awaiting their conviction are placed, and those places are meant to house people for 30 days to a year.

They don't have that in Uganda. So people who are awaiting trial are in there along with people who are convicted. People who have life sentences, right next to them. They don't have a right to a fair and speedy trial there. So you have people languishing there for years, who haven't even been convicted. They haven't even had charges brought to them. The stress that that brings to the environment is huge. Guys coming up to us while we're filming, being like, "I'm in here for two years; I'm innocent. Can you do anything for me?" Obviously, there's not much you can do. It has more of the opposite effect.

How frequently are these games played? Is it an annual tournament? Bi-annual? Are there practices? I mean, I feel like I'd be playing soccer all day.

So there's a lot of self-organized soccer. The field that they play on is a pretty big field. There's definitely soccer time—there's time for games—it's sort of self-organized in that way.

What makes this prison different and unique is that they've really embraced positive programming. They let outside organizations come in and run programs, which is something that is gaining a lot of traction in California—more so these days.

Just expanding the ability of church groups, of non-profits, of local universities to come in and spearhead a program. They have full degree programs in that prison. So guys are getting their bachelors and masters degrees from the local university, while they're in Luzira. You have the church running all kinds of programs.

The university and the church are the two main organizations who put these programs on. And it's also the professors and teachers from the university who really took soccer to this higher level. They fund the tournament. What I mean by that is that they'll buy the balls, they'll help provide the cleats, they'll get the jerseys, they'll get a little plastic trophy. The winner of the tournament gets sugar, soap, and a goat—the sponsor of the tournament will provide that too.

These outside groups, through their benevolence, will allow these tournaments to go down.

What was the origin on the tournaments?

The soccer itself is very self-organized in the same way that schoolyard soccer is self organized. There's teams—guys kind of group up, they play with their friends, they get games going. There was a loose structure to it, but as it started to become more competitive and more organized, they self-organized this players' association with these rules and really turned it into this highly-organized system. That goes down, regardless if there's sponsorship. The sponsorship thing is more for the tournament-style play.

The local university, Muteesa University, would come in and make a bi-annual soccer tournament. It makes things more exciting. It makes things bigger. It makes it more of an event for these guys. There are soccer tournaments and there are soccer games going on all the time, which is under this governance that they created for themselves.

[Pseudo-spoiler alert] What was it like to be there at the end of the match, when it rained?

The shoot was amazing. It was highly emotional. It went really well. The camaraderie on the crew was incredible. And for the final game—the end of the game—for it to downpour like that, for film's sake, you just can't get any better than that. It's such an incredible gift of luck that we felt like we were creating our own luck on that shoot. It figured that that would happen. It was intense, we were soaked to the bone, and obviously we were holding these ponchos over the cameras to keep rolling and keep going. In the spirit of the shoot, it was the same as everything else. It was a bit crazy, a bit nerve-wracking, a bit intense. But in the moment, we were all super excited and there for eachother and happy for what was happening.

The fans ran for cover, but when the game was over, and it just kind of popped off, it was just kind of mesmerizing. Prison is an ugly place, and that prison is super ugly. It's like meant to hold a couple hundred people, and there's thousands of people. It's some of the worst conditions ever and that moment, it was just like, in a human sense, the pure joy of it all was pretty overwhelming for everybody. The inmates were just dancing in the fucking rain. There were just hundreds and hundreds of people dancing in the rain for this moment. And then it was over, and they remembered that, oh yeah, life fucking sucks. But this moment they had, that shit was real, and it happened. So it was pretty wild to see everybody lose themselves in that.