Saving lives: partners unite to vaccinate over 11,000 prisoners in Uganda in three weeks

A nurse, Ms. Stella Kanakwa, vaccinates a prisoner against COVID-19 in a prison near the Uganda-Tanzania border. © UNODC

Kampala (Uganda), 17 June 2022 – A total of 11,137 prisoners, 633 prison staff, and 442 of their family members have been vaccinated against COVID-19 as part of a vaccination drive by the Uganda Prisons Service, supported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Twenty-nine prisons in three regions – Kampala Extra, Southern (Masaka) and Southwestern (Mbarara) – benefitted from the voluntary vaccination push held from 16 May to 6 June 2022.  

The prison environment is highly conducive for the transmission of COVID-19 due to overcrowding and poor ventilation.  

“The provision of health care for prisoners is a State responsibility, whereby prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community and should have access to essential, life-saving health-care services free of charge and without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status,” the UNODC head of office in Uganda, Ms. Sharon Lesa Nyambe, explained.  

“The inclusion of the prison community in the Ministry of Health’s vaccination roll-out since March 2021, in cooperation with the Uganda Prisons Services is commendable, especially given the challenges associated with mounting an effective vaccination campaign in prisons,” Nyambe added.  

The prison population in Uganda changes constantly, with the admission of new prisoners and the discharge of others.

Consequently, during the vaccination exercise, there were many prisoners who had never been vaccinated before, some who were receiving their second dose, and a cohort who received their booster dose.  

The Uganda Prisons Service (UPS)’ Assistant Commissioner of Health, Dr. James Kisambu, noted that the COVID-19 vaccination rate at in Uganda stands at 40 per cent, according to the Ministry of Health, while just 30 per cent of new prisoners were fully vaccinated.

“Vaccination in prisons means safety for both the prisoners and Uganda at large, because prisoners come from and return to the community,” Kisambu noted.

To get the voluntary buy-in of prisoners, staff, and family members, the medical teams – comprised of specialized staff from the Uganda Prison Service Headquarters in Kampala and the regions – briefed the prisoners on the importance of COVID-19 vaccination, the types of vaccines available and how to manage side-effects, should they occur.  

Increasing the health of prisoners is a core component of reducing the risks of violent extremism among prisoners.  

Going forward, the Uganda Prisons Service head of health services requested UNODC and other development partners for more support to enable it to vaccinate 95 per cent of prisoners, prison staff and their family members, the level recommended by the Ministry of Health for herd immunity.  

UNODC’s logistical support to the Uganda Prisons Service was made possible through the generous financing of the Government of Norway to the Multi-Partner Trust Fund of the UN Emergency Appeal for COVID-19 and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) of the US Department of State.

UNODC’s earlier support to the COVID-19 response in Uganda’s prisons includes:

  • Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in June 2020, UNODC handed over to the Uganda Prisons Service an assortment of medical equipment that included 40 high-dependence hospital beds to equip five newly established COVID-19 treatment centres in prisons.
  • To support efforts towards prisons decongestion of prisons during the lockdown, UNODC procured, seven video conferencing systems to facilitate virtual court hearings in the districts of; Gulu, Arua, Mbale, Jinja and Mbarara which a high number of prisoners then.