New Perspectives on the Postcolonial Prison

Submitted by Katherine Bruc… on Thu, 02/07/2019 - 11:48

by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, SSHRC/CHCI Postdoctoral Fellow

image of prison bars

Prisons represent one of the most vexed yet persistent features of the contemporary justice landscape. In 2018, an estimated eleven million people were incarcerated worldwide, a number that is likely much higher in reality. While most of the media attention focuses on mass incarceration in the United States, prisons have become a favoured option for dealing with offenders across the globe.

This phenomenon is relatively new. Until the advent of European colonialism, most communities in the Global South had alternative means of dealing with people who violated social norms. However, in the rhetoric of European colonizers, the punitive practices of the colonized were deemed “barbaric” and “backwards.” These discourses flattened and condemned indigenous modes of maintaining social order while also fuelling European calls for the “civilizing mission” and, by extension, colonialism itself.

Scholars’ inquiries into the history of the prison have focused on three particular moments: the “birth” of the prison in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, its expansion into colonized spaces, and the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. Historians, however, have yet to engage deeply with the carceral landscape of the postcolony. Representations of the prison in postcolonial African nations, for example, often reproduce the discourses that characterized European accounts of precolonial punitive forms. This tendency is perhaps most apparent in accounts of Uganda under Idi Amin, the military dictator responsible for the deaths of an estimated three hundred thousand Ugandans in the 1970s. Medievalesque descriptions of Amin’s “gaols” and “dungeons” appeared regularly in Western media at the time, generating images of the nation’s prisons as sites of unmitigated torture and suffering.

TIME magazine cover featuring Idi Amin, 7 March 1977,16641,19770307,00.html

Focusing on Uganda, my research examines the prison’s endurance after colonial rule. In particular, I am interested in the period between Uganda’s independence in 1962 and the inauguration of Yoweri Museveni, the current president, in 1986. During this time, the country experienced significant political instability, including a military coup led by Amin in the 1970s, war with Tanzania, and a civil war in the 1980s. Uganda’s prisons were thus operating in an environment marked by violence and unpredictability. However, their history cannot simply be reduced to the well-worn narrative of postcolonial institutional dysfunction. While there were (and are) grave problems of neglect and abuse within Uganda’s prisons – as can be said about the Canadian, American, and other penal systems – scholars must expand their analysis beyond a singular focus on coercion in order to understand the prison’s endurance in postcolonial states.

Sign, Republic of Uganda, Uganda Gov't Prison Fort-Portal
Photo by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart

One way of doing this is to focus on the social lives of the people who animated penal spaces. While scholars have written extensively about prisoners’ experiences, my work illuminates the perspectives of prison officers. It traces how they harnessed the prison’s status as a “monument to modernity,” linking the institution’s development to the wider goals of the postcolonial state.[1]  Prison officers fashioned a professional identity that was based on the ideals of service, expertise, political neutrality, and integrity. Under the leadership of Fabian Okwaare, the first Ugandan to serve as the Commissioner of Prisons, the Uganda Prisons Service’s approach was driven by criminological and penological perspectives. Particularly in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, senior prison staff engaged in global networks of criminologists and penal practitioners. Many attended the United Nations Congresses on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, as well as professional training programs and conferences held overseas. Junior officers were also well-versed in the language and ideas that animated global circuits of penal knowledge and practice in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Overall, prison work was seen as respectable and in keeping with the wider modernizing goals of the nascent nation.

Uniformed prison officers dancing
Photo by Miriam Namutembe*

Officers’ pride in their work and sense of purpose was profoundly challenged in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, extrajudicial detention in spaces ranging from basements to luxury hotel rooms became commonplace, resulting in the torture, disappearances, and deaths of many Ugandans. Government prisons, too, were greatly impacted by the militarization of the state, tasked with holding a wide range of criminal and political prisoners, coping with wartime insecurity, and dealing with an influx of paramilitary agents. Through examining the Prisons Service’s response to state-sponsored violence, my work thus explores an issue that numerous societies have grappled with, from Nazi Germany to Pinochet’s Chile: how to create public service institutions that provide a counterweight to political extremes.  

Ultimately, the importance of my research lies in how it recasts the parameters of studying the global history of the prison. Scholars must look more deeply at both the postcolonial period and prison staff in order to understand why the prison has become a universal phenomenon.



  1. Frank Dikötter, ‘Introduction: The Prison in the World’, in Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia and Latin America, eds. Frank Dikötter and Ian Brown. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 4.