RSCJ | Ministry to prisoners in Kalungu town

Our Friends, the Prisoners of Kalungu

How did our friendship begin? It is very interesting. My first contact with Kalungu Prison was through the prison warden. I went to ask her if the prisoners could assist us plant sweet potatoes in the school garden. It was still raining in September and I wanted to plant before the rains ended. There were 25 prisoners who came. They dug well and did the planting. One of them said, 'When we come to work for you, we are not abused. We are not called thieves or murderers. Often people run away as we pass by. They don't want to associate with us. But you are different. You seem to love us.'

The first time I met these prisoners, I was shocked by their appearance - tattered clothes, dirty bodies. One could tell they had spent days without washing themselves or their clothing. Afterwards I learned that when a person is arrested he comes as he is not going back home to get something to change into. As they go through severe punishment their clothing turns to rags.

I felt so badly when I saw the way the prisoners are treated. If anyone is slow and can't work as the others do, that person is beaten very hard. I watched one thin man who really looked sick and weak. The way he was beaten went to my heart and I remembered Psalm 118 where it says, 'Their attacks were so fierce that I nearly fell, but the Lord helped me' (v 13). I became very emotional. I prayed to find the best way to intervene without losing my temper, to find a way to help the situation. From that time I tried to see if I could go and pray with them. I asked if on Sunday I might be allowed to come at a time when they would be free. I learned that on Sunday morning they do their personal cleaning cut their nails and hair and do their washing. Then they are free from 2 p.m. until 5.

The next Sunday I went to pray with them. I had asked the Holy Spirit to give me the right words to speak to them. I did not know where to begin but when I opened my mouth whatever I said touched them. It was the first week of Advent and the Muslims had just finished their month of fasting. I said it was time for us Christians to prepare the way of the Lord, using Isaiah "Make straight in the wasteland a highway for the Lord". I added that the Muslims had just finished fasting for their sins and we Christians in Advent have to prepare our souls to welcome Jesus without sin. We Catholics go to confession to the priest and other religions do it in their own way. I asked them if they would like a priest to come. If you could have seen the joy! I emphasized that they are here in prison because they were caught, but most of us who have done worse sins are not here because we were not found out. I used the Luganda proverb that says, 'If you are not caught in the act you are not considered a thief, but the one caught in the act is the thief.' You should have seen their eyes light up! They were very happy. They felt accepted and loved by God and also felt they were normal people.

The prison staff has really appreciated the changes which have taken place. They say that now the prisoners are no longer wanting to escape and the aggression among them has stopped. They are no longer attacking each other but have become more friendly, peaceful and cooperative. The prison wardens are also more relaxed and happy. They want us to continue because they say our prisoners will go back changed people and will be able to settle back well.

The following Sunday I went at around 2 p.m. That day it had rained and their clothes were not dry yet. Do you know that they had to go back to the cell because they had no other clothing to change into. They were naked. I had to go home and come back at 5.00 p.m. when they were very happy to see me, though even then they were only in their pants. I really felt pity for them and when I went back to the community I told my Sisters what I had seen. We decided to do something. I suggested that anyone who had a T shirt should give it to me so that these people would have something to change into when they do their washing. Sister Noellina also told the students about the situation and they were very touched. Since the prisoners were all men the best we could offer would be T shirts. This was done during school Mass as offering their gift to Jesus. The staff members also contributed generously. When I counted the T shirts there were still not enough, so as a community we looked at our budget for charity and I went to make up the number needed.

The next Sunday I asked Fr. Martin, the school chaplain, to hear their confessions. Then Sister Susan Nankya and Sister Flo joined me to help teach them the prayers for the next Sunday Mass. Resty and Nakato, who were aspiring to join our congregation, taught them the songs. During confessions the non-Catholics also went to get a blessing from the priest.

The following Sunday the Mass at the prison was wonderful. One of the prisoners conducted the singing and all participated very well. They prayed for a change of heart for themselves.

Here in the parish our priest announced that the prisoners would be singing the second Mass on Christmas Day! The parishioners could not believe that they would be allowed to come out and mingle with other people. It would enable them to escape. The wardens were very skeptical!

The 4th Sunday of Advent came and that week the Prison Warden gave us two days to practice the songs and the Christmas play. In the evening the parish offerings for their Christmas meal were brought to our house matooke bananas, sweet potatoes, beans, sugar cane, and sweet bananas.

On Christmas Day, for the Offertory procession these men danced and people could not believe what they were seeing! After Communion the prisoners put on a nativity play. The best actors were those who took the parts of Joseph, Mary, King Herod and the three Kings. People were fascinated and excited and the prisoners were delighted with themselves.

The day ended well for everyone. Somebody offered them sodas and that day they ate rice and meat. Not one tried to run away!

We have been trying to live education that transforms. I have seen it, experienced it in the community of the prisoners and their prison staff. When we took the clothes to the prison and asked if they could be used on Sundays, that very week the prison warden went and got them uniforms! So now they no longer wear rags and they are no longer beaten. The transformation is noticed by everybody!

Subsequently, I visited the Fr. John Mary Waliggo and asked him to assist me with the difficult situation I faced with the prisoners in Kalungu. Fr. Waliggo was the executive secretary of the Uganda Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and a Commissioner with the Uganda Human Rights Commission. As a result of this meeting, Kalungu Prison was put under the Central Government which resulted in the following:

We owe a big debt of gratitude to this great Ugandan priest who passed away in April 2008 having worked passionately for peace and justice. May he now be in the fullness of life with God whom he served so faithfully.

Once or twice a week I go together with some students of St. Charles Lwanga Girls' Training Centre to pray and talk with the prisoners. Once a month, one of the parish priests comes to celebrate a Mass for the prisoners. During Advent and Lent, catechists from the parish are also involved in instructing the prisoners in the faith.

The prisoners look forward to our visits. There is a very good relationship between the prisoners and the students. For example, it is interesting how the prisoners advise the students on life telling them how to be, not to mess around the way they have. Many of the prisoners are illiterate and so the students are also involved in teaching the prisoners how to read and write and especially to at least be able to write their names. Students from the school donate exercise books, pens, pencils, soap and toothpaste for the prisoners.

The students and I always look forward to being with the prisoners who bring us closer to the suffering Christ and to the hope they have in being changed people for the better.

-Sister Mary Kajubi, RSCJ