This article appears in VICE UK's October Prison Issue
As the final whistle is blown in a semi-final between 'Liverpool' and 'Chelsea' it's clear who the man of the match is. He just scored a hat-trick playing in bare feet. Twenty-eight-year-old Benon Luyima has been on Liverpool's books for eight years and still has four left on his contract. "What was your crime?" I ask.
"Murder," Benon tells me. "I caught my wife with another man and accidentally hit her. She died."
"I just didn't mean to kill her."
This isn't a typical sports interview, but then again this isn't a typical sporting fixture either. Benon has just secured his team's place in the final of Uganda's most sophisticated prison soccer tournament, an event that's known not just for its high-quality soccer but also the remarkable part it plays in Uganda's ability to boast the lowest recidivism rate in the whole of Africa.
Benon was sentenced to 12 years in Luzira and credits soccer with teaching him how to control his temper. "When I get out I just want to be able to apologize to her family and hope that one day they will forgive me," he says. I ask him what he'll do if he ever finds himself in a similar situation. "I'll just walk away. I can't come back here."
Benon is one of 3,000 men in Uganda's only maximum security jail. Set on a hill outside the capital, Kampala, its 65-foot-high walls make for a foreboding entrance. On the inside inmates mill around a dusty yard, dressed in either orange or yellow. This used to signify whether someone had been sentenced or was on remand, but since the number of those awaiting trial grew to over 50 percent of the inmate population the system was abandoned.
Step further into the prison and almost all signs of authority disappear. Guards are nowhere to be seen—prisoners outnumber them 35 to one—and it becomes clear that inmates do almost all of the work required to operate the prison. They haul wood through the yard to the kitchen, where topless men wield axes to chop logs into firewood. This is an endless task that feeds the stoves where more prisoners cook in 26-gallon pans. Allotments growing spinach and potatoes are tended by older men and in the sick bay other prisoners administer drugs to patients. Compared to American or British institutions the amount of responsibility handed over to the inmates is remarkable, and so is the lack of aggression.
The officer in charge of the prison, Wilson Magomu, believes that keeping inmates busy is essential to running a positive, rehabilitative prison. Certainly the statistics back this up. Luzira has a recidivism rate of less than 30 percent, embarrassing the UK and the US, where nearly 46 and 76 percent respectively of freed prisoners return eventually. "In those countries, societies tend to be punitive," says Magomu. "People don't think they've got any business with criminals, but the immediate reason they're here is to be rehabilitated. If somebody is not involved in something, if somebody's idle, it's very easy [for them] to get involved in mischief."
These men are here for some of the most serious crimes—the accused in the July 2010 Kampala attacks are being held here—and some face sentences of up to 25 years. For this reason, distracting them from an eternity of incarceration is key. "They've been punished already; we're not punitive here." Magomu preaches the liberal approach and says it's the smartest way. "We're only a few; they could easily take over."
At the center of this non-punitive system is the prison's soccer league, made up of ten teams that take their names from European giants. They include Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Barcelona. Each team has a squad of 20 players and a fan base made up of loyal followers and fellow inmates.
On match days the main yard is transformed into a soccer pitch. Markings are drawn out using pieces of string, and white flour, and the goal posts, otherwise used as washing lines, have nets strung up beneath them. As the rival teams change into replica soccer uniforms in classrooms-turned-changing rooms, the rest of prison life draws to a standstill as inmates make their way to the sidelines. For the next 90 minutes the prison becomes a stadium as supporters let out roars and cheer their team to victory. Liverpool isn't the only team with a murderer on its side. The other finalist, Manchester United, has a star striker, Jackson, who was a fisherman on the outside until one day, in a heated dispute, he killed a man. He leads us through to the carpentry workshop, where he also works, and explains how he's learned these practical skills here.
It's his, and almost everyone else's, openness to discussing their crimes that makes each interaction here stand out from other prisons I've visited in the world. The staff put this down to respect. They believe that while someone might have killed another person, this doesn't make them a murderer for life. Forgiveness must play a part in everyone's prison experience.
But just as many prisoners still insist they're innocent, like Manchester United's other key striker, Joel. The 21-year-old was arrested for armed robbery and has been waiting over a year for his trial. His story reveals a deeper problem in Uganda, as he's one of over 1,500 men on remand in Luzira, their lives suspended in a legal limbo while the country's glacial justice system struggles to process those charged. Although he believes he shouldn't be in prison, Joel is making the most of his time here and has taken up education, as well as soccer, to distract himself from an indefinite wait. His schooling wasn't bad on the outside, but here he's studying geography and IT and dreams of becoming a computer engineer when he grows up.
I ask Joel if he thinks he needs rehabilitation. "Yes, I think so," he says. "I used to smoke cigarettes, and drink a bit." Typical of Uganda's strong culture of self-improvement and restraint, he sees these minor infringements as something that he can correct while he's on remand.
That's not to say that he and others are complacent about reality in the jail, or numb to the conditions. We see the soccer players' living quarters. Huge wards with no partitions, housing 300 men who sleep on three-foot floor mats. Although the prison chiefs recognize that the overcrowding is inhumane, they blame their inability to do anything about it on lack of resources.
At the start of our visit to Luzira we're chaperoned on a tight leash, but as the days pass we achieve some freedom of our own inside. Inmates begin to approach us to whisper that the conditions are insufferable, and that a culture of control and intimidation is what really keeps the prison in order. They ask us to reveal what life is actually like in Luzira, a prison where inmates receive just one meal of porridge a day, every day. They slip their relatives' phone numbers to us on pieces of paper, scrawled hastily and passed in a handshake, in attempts to get messages out or expedite their cases. They're worried the "spies" who watch our every move will see the transaction.
When they talk of "spies" they're referring to men like Opio Moses, a former police officer who has served 18 years for murder. After killing his attacker in an act of self-defense, he turned the gun on himself. Having survived the suicide attempt, he was jailed, and is now the head of the psychiatric ward and the CEO of the prison soccer league, Upper Prison Sports Association. He wrote the rulebook on prison soccer and organizes various tournaments and leagues. In return he gets privileges, like the chance to see his son in the flesh rather than behind bars. He also gets more food and a bed rather than a floor mat.
Arsenal failed to make it to the final, an uncanny reflection of their Premiership peers' fortunes of late.
Beneath him are ten other "leaders," who do jobs and act as mediators between the inmates and the prison officers when issues of "injustice" arise. But this only tells one side of their role. In actual fact they monitor life on each ward and report trouble back to the staff. For this they get rewards, too. Beneath them are the team managers, including Captain Brian Massete, who has served 25 years. The players are poached, trained, and incentivized by these managers and the fan groups donate their visitors' gifts as part of this bargaining process.
The Sunday final begins in church, as congregations of various Christian denominations pray. A hum of deep gospel casts a peaceful Sunday atmosphere over the prison. The fans line the perimeter of the pitch, and the referees are brought in from the outside for the big game, which is deemed too significant to be adjudicated by potentially partisan members of the prison's refereeing fraternity.
At half time the heavens open and the next 45 minutes are played in torrential rain. It doesn't stop the DJ who's now banging Mr. Vegas's "Heads High" out of speakers as a carnival atmosphere descends on the prison. People dance with chairs on their heads and, as the final whistle blows, Liverpool is crowned glorious victors, with a single goal nudged into the back of the net by Benon. Pandemonium takes over and theatrical celebrations begin, as if the whole place is congratulating the game rather than a particular side.
For 90 minutes, and then an hour afterward, the spectacle seems to cast a spell—everyone temporarily forgets the urgent lack of resources, or, seemingly, that they are in prison at all. But as the excitement begins to wear off and the two teams stand shivering while they wait for the trophy to be awarded by prison staff and their affiliates, suddenly it's unclear whether soccer is a form of rehabilitation or regimentation in Luzira.
As everyone trudges through the mud to their wards, the lasting image is certainly one of a happier prison for all. But the cold shower and concrete mattress awaiting Benon might have as much to do with his commitment to not reoffending as his performance on the pitch.
VICE's film on Uganda's unique approach to rehabilitation will be out soon, keep an eye on VICE.com for its release.