Katende Patrick sits with a friend on the floor, absentmindedly rotating a few tiny rocks in his hand. They are pieces in a makeshift game of Parcheesi that the two have made out of a scrap of paper. Both of the boys are in the throes of malaria, so they speak slowly, but Patrick talks with an eloquence and calm that belie his 13 years of age.
This is the Kampiringisa Rehabilitation Centre, Uganda’s only juvenile-detention facility. Unlike remand homes, which house minors awaiting their court dates, Kampiringisa is a prison where the convicted serve out sentences ranging from three months to three years. The ramshackle dormitories, cafeteria, and gymnasium look like they ought to be condemned. And in spite of a gleaming sign out front declaring First Lady “Mama” Janet Museveni’s 2003 renovation of the center, most of the window panes have been shattered, the walls are peeling, and the floors are caked in mud.
Patrick has just begun to serve a six-month sentence for allegedly stealing a battery from his father. He doesn’t wear a shirt because, as with all other new convicts, the authorities have taken it from him. He will receive one at the end of the month, when he, alongside the 25 other newly admitted, will be allowed to leave the “black house”—a barred room where the children sleep on the floor, scrambling for space and lucky to procure a filthy blanket—and be assigned a bed of his own.
According to a recent report by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, there are 224 children incarcerated in Kampiringisa. This number changes frequently since the center houses—against both international and national law—child offenders alongside street children. Kampiringisa is not only a prison; it also doubles as temporary housing for Uganda’s hundreds of homeless minors. Whenever the government or the Kampala City Council decides to round up street children, they are brought here to be counted and subsequently resettled. “This additional mandate began in 2002,” Alule Michael, principal of the center, explained to me, “as a way of trying to reduce the stress on the streets.”
Since the formal admissions procedure is rarely followed, parents can simply drop truculent children off at will. One young girl was sent here by her parents for “being stubborn.” Another’s crime was “refusing to do what my parents told me.” These two are serving five and 12 months, respectively. When queried, their social worker says, with a trace of laughter, “Well, even babies are brought here!” And as if to bolster his claim, he points to two-year-old Museveni, a street child who has been sentenced to stay here indefinitely. He sits on the floor and doesn’t bother to swat the flies away from his urine-soaked clothes. He’s already been here for a year.
According to the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development’s report “Removal of Street Children in Uganda Strategy 2008,” plans were enacted to build a separate rehabilitation center to house street children and provide vocational skills and recreational activities. Acknowledging that “it is against national and international laws to accommodate vulnerable children with those child offenders on detention at the same centre,” the document goes on to state that a 1.1-billion-shilling “funding gap” remained. Allocations included 40 balls (8 million shillings, or $400), two 27-inch televisions with DVD players (3 million shillings, or $150), assorted welding materials (30 million shillings, or $15,000), and 30 assorted indoor games (750,000 shillings, or $325).
A recent visit revealed just how few of the removal strategy’s aims have been achieved. Instead of participating in any visible recreational activities, most of the boys ambled about on a derelict field, kicking up dust or making their way to the canteen for their meager daily meal of ground maize and beans. Their distended bellies read more “refugee camp” than “rehabilitation center.” Since malaria is commonplace and medicine scant, inmates like Patrick will have to simply wait out their diseases. According to one of three social workers on duty on the day of my visit, medication is always running out because the dispensary also serves the local community.
The boys who come here after being arrested on alcohol- or drug-related charges must spend their first few weeks in a place called “the cell.” Here, in a room no bigger than a broom closet, five to seven half-clothed and wild-eyed kids are forced “to sober up,” as the attending social worker notes approvingly. This is where the rehabilitation process begins for those children convicted of smoking marijuana, or bangi as it is known locally, which according to Michael makes one “go mentally mad.” The smell of the room is fetid and nauseating; the boys take turns hoisting themselves up to the small, barred opening in the door to get a breath of fresh air. It seems that they should be angry. Perhaps they are. But they hardly say a word. One boy serving time in the cell is clearly mentally disturbed. The social worker says that he was sent there for shattering a window with his bare hands. Since there are no mental-health workers on site, disturbances like this are dealt with through isolation. He is placid and his eyes are red. He looks ill. Like the rest, he is mostly silent, but he suddenly speaks up: “I want to leave. Today!” The social worker quickly and jovially says that it is time to watch the preparations for a Christmas dance.
For Alule Michael, Kampiringisa is a point of pride, a “success” that is “nationally known” for its ability to retain both child convicts and unwanted street children. Meanwhile, Patrick still nurses hopes of returning home even though his father doesn’t respond to his letters. Though his father used to beat him regularly, Patrick recalls fond memories of him and of his own life before being sent to the center. He tells his story with hardly a trace of anger or sadness. He says, “The last thing my father said to me was ‘I don’t know you and I don’t want to know you.’”