Manufacturing Death Worlds: The Prison System in Uganda

by Jackline Kemigisa

If you say you’re sick, the warden just kicks you and says, “Even dead bodies must work.”

Musa, Muduuma Prisoner, November 12, 2010[1]

Across the Global South, expressly in British colonial territories, remnants of functioning prison systems endure – Uganda is no different. The Uganda prison system is rooted in colonial anti-Black legacies of disposability, death-making conferring upon Africans the status of the living dead.

Anti-Blackness, the practices that devalue, dehumanise, and standardise Black people[2] to the sub-human category,[3] are foundational to the very creation of Uganda, invented by the British as a protectorate[4]  through violently discontinuing and dislocating smaller nation-states to extract tea plantation labour and taxes for the empire.

This article focuses on the significance of incarceration in upholding state tyranny in Uganda, situating the history of colonial anti-Blackness within the present. I argue that a termination of incarcerable institutions, manned by police and military from “safe houses”, would mean an end to the colonial fiction that is Uganda. Prisons are fundamental to the executive power of the nation-state.

Like the British application of imprisonment to logicise colonisation, the post-colonial state uses prison violence infrastructure to legitimise its creation. The post-colonial government, I argue, did not intend to discontinue structural anti-Blackness entrenched through the law, prisons, borders, military, and police.

Moreover, the assortment of incarceration sites and methods in Uganda and, by extension, across former European colonies, shows that geography cannot exclusively define detention. Colonial arrest was inescapable and knew no clear territorial or legal boundaries; everyday life, from spirituality to indigenous agricultural practices and cultures, was criminalised as an extension of the “civilising” mission.

Exposing populations to incarceration logic beyond just the physical buildings, and devaluation practices such as public flogging and infantilization, reinstated the inferiority of Black bodies and minds.

Legislation substructure became an extension of prison infrastructure codified  in criminal laws[5], named the Penal Codes which criminalised indigenous ways of being, first in India and West Africa, then imported to the rest of Eastern Africa.

Besides, the anti-Black violence in Uganda manifests in what Achille Mbembe theorised as necropolitics,[6] meaning subjugating life to the power of death for colonial practices of war created within democracies in post-colonies generates a “permanent condition of living in pain” for the citizens.

Using Mbembe’s theorisation as a foundation, I argue that where sovereignty was by way of flag independence, prisons are a way to govern masses. Additionally weaponising the military, evidenced in state-sanctioned murders, police brutality, neglect of welfare sectors, produces a “population living at the edge of life” with its surplus in prisons.

In Uganda, the necropolitics weapon of choice is state terror, imprisonment  of people produced by modern capital, no longer exploitable. The population is managed through their exposure to prison risks, from torture, to humiliation, and finally death – staying true to its colonial anti-Black hangovers.   

Uganda’s Prisons History

Through power and violence, British colonisation introduced prisons, part and parcel of the “civilising” agenda epitomised by the military and the police. The “civilising agenda” was part of the justification European powers put forward in defence of violent  colonisation across Africa.  

Florence Bernault explores how European colonists in Africa imposed prison systems on a massive scale as soon as they secured control over people and territories. [7]

Bernault distinguishes between the prison system in Europe and those introduced in Africa: “Racial segregation and social distance between Europeans and Africans served as an enduring though implicit basis for the architectural, moral and bureaucratised management of the colonial penitentiaries. While the Western penitentiary reframed free individuals as equal citizens and legal subjects, the colonial prison primarily constructed Africans as objects of power.” Bernault theorises the prisons system in Africa colonised territories as a “never-ending enterprise of territorial and human conquest”.

Prisons in Africa codified criminality, rounded by Black workers in efforts to maintain colonial rule; their success allowed them to survive the end of the European occupation. The prison played an important role in enforcing labour, acting as a repercussion to any resistance to forced colonial labour, thus the prison system, became a way of disciplining the masses. In Uganda, tax regimes, such hut tax changed family structures and gendered labour, as only men within a household (hut) were required to pay tax. In turn, women’s labour was privatised to the household and gender roles across communities transformed, with men at the top within economic structures. [8]

St John Ambulance Brigade Activities (Lower Prison, Luzira) Kampala, Uganda; CO 1069/196
This image is a part of the Colonial Office photographic collection held at The National Archives, UK uploaded as part of the Africa Through a Lens project.

According to Bernault, the institutionalisation of prisons emerged from judicial and legislative action and administration. It is worth noting that institutions of punishment existed before British colonisation. However, prison systems introduced a shift in the punitive approach[9] in Uganda.

In Uganda, the British built the first colonial prisons in the 1890s. By the 1930s, according to Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, there were approximately 300 penal institutions spread across three prison services – the majority of these were smaller “lockups,” jails, and prisons run by local government authorities. Uganda as a protectorate instituted Buganda Kingdom as part of the leadership structures, replicating them forcefully across different smaller nation-states organised around ethnicity.  This is not to say that there were no punitive methods for different societies, it is rather to highlight that prisons–both systems and enclosed structured- legislated in governance were a colonial introduction. [10]

According to Bruce-Lockhart, the Uganda Prison Service was the most formalised, introduced by the 1903 Prisons Ordinance, and provided a legislative framework and the first blueprint for the modern prison. “It mapped out a strict hierarchy for prison officers; a dense clerical infrastructure; dietary scales differentiated by race; and guidelines for separating different types of offenders,” Bruce-Lockhart writes. [11]

The Prison Service also reflected the racial hierarchies, “with British officers serving in the senior positions, Asians in clerical roles,” and Ugandans in the lower ranks.

Additionally, the Penal Code laws’ legal infrastructure was carried from colonial India,[12] and later replaced with the East African Penal Code laws monitoring, categorising, and dictating movement, sexuality, and spirituality in the region.

Historically, the Penal Code laws were introduced by the British[13] as part of a racist framework, stripping Ugandans of their rights and relegating them to subjects, from India to Nigeria and then Eastern Africa. Paul Swanepoel highlights codification,[14] the process of collecting and arranging laws into a code, as a central feature of the British Empire. The Penal Code and Criminal Procedural Code were enacted in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Nyasaland in 1930 and in Uganda and Zanzibar in 1934.

British colonisers maintained their racist hierarchies within the prisons, with prisoners categorised as White, Asian, or African. Notwithstanding their connection with colonial oppression, prisons remain a dominant pillar of the penal system in Africa.

Angelo Anaïs argues that the “genealogy of the detention sites in African colonies reveals the way that the policies of detention nurtured a culture of violence that developed with, within, around, and outside them”.[15]

Extending Angelo’s argument of detention sites nurturing a culture of violence, in Uganda, this culture manifests within the structural anti-Blackness of the disciplinary system.

The structural anti-Blackness within the punitive system in Uganda is at play today in the following ways:

1) The use of prison labour on agricultural farms, a racial capitalism legacy, is alive and well in Uganda prisons. Companies and individuals hire prisoners to work,  providing cheap labour, mirroring the colonial forces.  

2) Dehumanisation and humiliation tactics are still in use across the systems in Uganda, exemplified in the bucket system, where prisoners have no access to toilet facilities and use buckets[16] as replacements on top of the overcrowding.

3)  The colonial legacy of arbitrary arrests of Africans  resisting colonisation has been transferred across different post-colonial violent regimes since the inception of the flag of independence. The structural anti-Blackness is also evidenced in the dislocation of justice systems and ways of knowing and being of Africans, as punitive approaches to conflict resolution are the norm in the country, what Angela Davis calls the absolute nature of the prison industrial complex. [17]

Detention facilities such as those described as “safe houses” under Uganda’s current President, Yoweri Museveni, also reflect the multifaceted networks of detention sites that have become critical tools for his government to control and punish political opposition—a copy-paste approach from the British coloniser’s use of detention sites to punish and control colonised populations.

The post-colonial state, through necro-politics (read: use of political power to dictate which  people live and those who must die) institutes anti-Blackness as part of citizens’ everyday existence. Uganda’s detention system then enforces the state’s Necro-power to discipline the masses.   

Necropolitics as a Manifestation of Colonial Anti-Black Legacies in Uganda

First, detention institutions in Uganda are anti-Black in their mandate of disposability by way of regulations such as the Anti-Homosexuality Law, with its roots in British colonial penal codes, which categories all queer Ugandans, allies, and researchers as candidates for prison under offences such as “promotion of homosexuality”, and homosexual acts and actions.

Achille Mbembe describes the inner workings of necropolitics as an “entrenchment of political, economic and military oriented towards the elimination of human population”.  [18]

Mbembe’s necropolitics, by way of state terror, operates by deciding which lives and categories of people are sub-human. The state terror functions as a deliberate misremembering, and epistemic violence of ways of being for Ugandans whose history is littered with same-sex communities across generations, as feminists like Sylvia Tamale and Stella Nyanzi have documented.

Tamale writes of compulsory heterosexuality legalised through penal laws in Uganda usually referred to as “sex against the order of nature.”

For Tamale, the post-colonial nation-state embodies the European patriarchal culture of the male as the born leader. By extension, in the phallocratic culture, what is considered “natural” is penovaginal intercourse between a male and a female.

The law then portrays homosexuality as unnatural, punishable by prison and death for “aggravated homosexuality”. It performs state terror by classifying certain Ugandans as other, abnormal; deserving of excommunication from society and regulated to the margins.

Tamale writes of the institutions of dismembering and epistemic violence that unsettle the African ways of being, state punitive practices like imprisonment for Queer Ugandans are an   alteration of history of African peoples engaging in same-sex relations:

“Anthropological and historical studies point to homosexuality in various forms in pre-colonial times in at least fifty-five African cultures. In Uganda, for example, among the Langi of northern Uganda, mudoko dako “males” were treated as women and could marry men. Homosexuality was also acknowledged among the lteso, Babima, Banyoro, and Baganda. It was an open secret in Royal Buganda that the Kabaka, King Mwanga, was gay.” [19]

The penitentiaries are embedded within the state terror as implementers, storages of the state-authorised violence housing the “excess” population (read: queer Ugandans) certified as marginal to the society and deserving of death. The prison as punishment prescribed by the penal laws then becomes part of the structure of inequality that intersects with class, gender and sexuality that yields certain populations, catalogued as the “living dead”.  

The overcrowding in jails reveals the excessive imprisonment of the Ugandan population. For example, the Defence and Internal Affairs Parliament Committee report documents that the Luzira upper prison, built by colonists to house 600 inmates, now houses over 3000 prisoners.[20]

Additionally, prisons in Uganda were not built with a female population in mind. Therefore, childcare services are still rare for many women. A study commissioned by the Public Interest Clinic School of Law, Makerere University, on access to justice for women and children,[21] notes that “Women are arrested without due consideration to their caregiving responsibilities and are not allowed to make arrangements for the care of their children, while police stations are overcrowded and lack basic beddings and basic sanitary facilities.”

Furthermore, there are no clear policies for dealing with the children of the arrested women; prisons then become places to hold the excess population, creating room for disposability in instances of the children of the incarcerated mothers.

Secondly, the colonial racial capitalistic[22] notions of racialised and coerced prison cheap labour for tea plantation labour in Uganda is still evident in prison labour programs, from cotton growing, to agricultural farming, and furniture development for government agencies in Uganda.

According to the latest report from the Uganda Prisons Service, prisoners have to produce their food as part of the “Non-Tax Revenue Generation and Promotion of self-sufficiency” program, planting over 9,484 acres of maize grain in 2022[23].

The prisoners also make furniture for the government agencies and grow cotton for the textile industry in Uganda, however, for compensation of labour, prisoners earn Shs 1398 (38 cents) for the skilled labourer. Comparing with the profit that Uganda Prisons Services receives versus the 38 cents paid as wage labour,indicates a relationship of exploitation between prisoners and the state similar to anti-Black colonial legacies of labour exploitation 

Lastly, the penitentiaries’ power to manufacture an entire population of people as socially dead, with nobody bearing the slightest feeling or responsibility or justice towards their life or death, is an extension of the logics of anti-Blackness.

Structural anti-Blackness that is operational in absolute institutions such as prisons in Uganda is a criterion that allows for necropolitics to be performed, for prisons epitomised by the organised violence of the police, and for the military to maintain precarious conditions of exploitation pending death.

Prisons in Uganda continue to be part of the zones of state violence and terror for anyone on the margins of society, from sexual minorities to political prisoners and the poor. To rethink justice systems in Uganda would be to dislodge the logic of anti-Blackness and, by extension, the legitimacy of the nation-state.

[1] Quote is from a Human Rights Watch report documenting the human rights violations across the Ugandan prisons, the labour extraction of prisoners who are forced to work on farms and paid close to nothing. “Even Dead Bodies Must Work” Health, Hard Labor, and Abuse in Uganda Prisons. Human Rights Watch. 2011.

[2] Throughout the essay I use both Black and African interchangeably to mean people of dark skin complexion in Uganda and across Africa.

[3] 1. Janvieve  Williams Comrie et al., “Anti-Blackness/ Colorism – Boston University,”, accessed July 15, 2023.

[4] Uganda’s colonial creation was through the declaration that all the territories next to Buganda Kingdom were to be united under British role and Buganda Kingdom, one of East Africa’s biggest kingdoms was granted the status of protectorate after the 1900 Buganda agreement.

 See: Griffiths, Tudor. “Bishop Alfred Tucker and the Establishment of a British Protectorate in Uganda 1890-94.” Journal of Religion in Africa 31, no. 1 (2001): 92–114.

[5] Morris, H. F. “A History of the Adoption of Codes of Criminal Law and Procedure in British Colonial Africa, 1876-1935.” Journal of African Law 18, no. 1 (1974): 6–23.

[6]  Mbembe, A. (2003). Necropolitics. Public Culture, 15(1), 11–40.

[7] Bernault, Florence. “3. The Shadow of Rule: Colonial Power and Modern Punishment in Africa” In Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia, and Latin America edited by Frank Dikötter and Ian Brown, 55-94. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

[8] Tuck, Michael W. ‘The Rupee Disease’: Taxation, Authority, and Social Conditions in Early Colonial Uganda.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 39, no. 2 (2006): 221–45.

[9] Katherine deVries Bruce-Lockhart. June 2017. “Imagining Modernity In The Uganda Prisons Service, 1945-1979. Trinity College. University of Cambridge.

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] See: H.F. Morris, ‘A History of the Adoption of Codes of Criminal Law and Procedure in British Colonial

Africa, 1876-1935’, Journal of African Law 18:1 (1974): 13.

[13] Morris, H. F. “A History of the Adoption of Codes of Criminal Law and Procedure in British Colonial Africa, 1876–1935.” Journal of African Law 18, no. 1 (1974): 6–23. doi:10.1017/S0021855300012663.

[14] Paul Swanepoel. Codifying Criminal Law in East Africa during the Interwar Period. Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien / Vienna Journal of African Studies No. 37/2019, Vol. 19, 93‐113. Doi: 10.25365/phaidra.251

[15] Angelo, Anaïs. “Landscapes of Colonial Detention Sites.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. 21 Jun. 2023; Accessed 1st Jul. 2023.

[16] The Independent Uganda. 2020. “Parliament calls for audit of police, prisons facilities” htt3s://

[17] Davis, Angela Yvonne. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

[18] Mbembe, Achille (2003). “Necropolitics” (PDF). Public Culture. 15 (1): 11–40. doi:10.1215/08992363-15-1-11. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-10-10.

[19]   Tamale, Sylvia. “Confronting the Politics of Nonconforming Sexualities in Africa.” African Studies Review 56, no. 2 (2013): 31–45.

[20] Report of the Committee of Defense and Internal Affairs Uganda. “State of Government Prisons in Uganda”

[21] See: Kirom Associates. “Access to Justice for Women incarcerated with Children in Uganda: Flaws and Opportunities for Reform”. Public Interest Clinic School of Law, Makerere University. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

[22]  Racial capitalism describes the historical relationship between exploitation, capital accumulation and race, from slavery, colonisation, and apartheid in South Africa. Racial capitalism as a concept asserts that racialized exploitation such as colonisation and capital accumulation are mutually reinforcing. The idea first discussed in Southern Africa to describe apartheid policies, was popularised in the West Cedric Robinson, in this book Black Marxism where he asserts that “the development, organisation and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions”.  In the Ugandan context, the Prison colonial history of establishing cheaper and forced labour of workers on farmers is part of the anti-Black colonial legacies that still exist to date. See: Robinson, Cedric. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. University of North Carolina Press, 1983. Also see: Jodi Melamed. “Racial Capitalism.” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 1 (2015): 76–85.

[23] See: Uganda Prison Service Annual Performance Report.

Jackline Kemigisa is a feminist journalist, writer, researcher, and podcaster based in Uganda. Currently, she is a Research Affiliate with the Center for Arts Design and Social Research, working with the team organizing the Black Planetary Future Conversations. As a podcaster, Kemigisa co-hosts the Wulira History Podcast, focusing on rewriting women in their Ugandan history. Her research focusing on feminist resistance has been instrumental in formulating tools for Women Human Rights defenders, as well as feminist aspiring leaders in Uganda. 

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