ugandan bowl 248 88.
(photo credit: Avraham Hoffman)
When the the inmates on death row in a prison in Kampala, Uganda heard that the man who had come to visit them was from Jerusalem, they received him with "so much love that it was incredible," Avraham Hoffman, founder of Israel's Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, recalled on Monday.
Hoffman, a pioneer in the field of rehabilitation reform in Israel, spent five days in Uganda earlier this month to help prison authorities and an international charity set up a rehabilitation program for released inmates that would provide them with housing and vocational skills.
The program being drawn up for Uganda - Aftercare - is designed to place newly released inmates on a farm where they can work the land and train in crafts like carpentry. Such steps dramatically increase the chances of ex-convicts staying out of prison, Hoffman said.
But first, Hoffman visited prisoners who may never have the chance to experience rehabilitation - the 232 inmates on death row at the Upper-Luzira in Kampala.
"It was difficult to encounter the condemned, though some of them end up receiving pardons from judges, so there's no certainty their convictions will be upheld," Hoffman said.
"There is a public debate in Uganda on whether to continue capital punishment," he added.
Hoffman, a religious man, told the prisoners, "We don't know what God has in store, and whether your sentence will be upheld, but you are people who are trying to hold on to your humanity. I hope you don't reach the final stage of your conviction."
The inmates did not dispute their guilt, Hoffman said, and have been attempting to improve themselves by attending courses, singing in a chorus, participating in a drama club and reading in the library.
These were made available to them largely through the efforts of the Africans Prisons Project charity, which was founded by British national Alexander McLean when he was on gap year before beginning university. McLean has since dedicated his life to improving conditions for prisoners in Africa.
McLean was the one who invited Hoffman to Uganda to assist in the planning of the Aftercare program. Hoffman decided to ask the condemned prisoners he met for help.
"You have passed through many prisons, and can therefore be objective," Hoffman told the death row inmates. "What are the needs of Ugandan prisoners after they are released?"
Valuable input was obtained from the prisoners, Hoffman said.
"They stressed the need to work their own lands. Some said their families ignored them after their release," he explained.
"What is an absolute must is the education of skills for a job," one inmate said.
"We are in urgent need of a craft [that can show us] how to make doors, electricity, plumbing," another said.
Hoffman shared the idea of placing former inmates on a farm containing a vocational workshop, enabling them to earn a living by farming while obtaining job skills.
"They accepted my ideas," Hoffman recalled. "One man said, I will change my will so that if I am hung, my farm will go towards the village you wish to create."
Hoffman met with the head of Uganda's prisons and other officials, and said the authorities were enthusiastic about Aftercare.
"From an Israeli perspective, it shows that the importance of Jerusalem opens doors. I wandered around with a kippa and I was received so warmly," Hoffman said.
Some 85 percent of Ugandans are Christian. Around 12 % are Muslim.
After he returned to Israel, a number of prisoners crafted a wooden bowl and sent it to Hoffman to show him their appreciation. A verse from Samuel I (2:8) was inscribed on the bowl that begins, "He raises the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the ash heap."