Testing prison officers' professionalism

Katherine Bruce-Lockhart on her research into the resilience of prison officers' professionalism in post-colonial Uganda.

I was interested to understand what happened to prison officers in Africa after the British left and what relevance the imported idea of prison had for people.

Katherine Bruce-Lockhart

How resilient is professionalism in key institutions like the police, army and prison service in the face of authoritarian rule? It’s an issue that is very relevant today and Katherine Bruce-Lockhart is believes history can shed some light on the subject. Her PhD research approaches it from the perspective of prison officers in Uganda in the post-colonial transition through to the end of Idi Amin’s rule in 1979. “I was interested to understand what happened to prison officers in Africa after the British left and what relevance the imported idea of prison had for people,” says Katherine.

Her PhD built on her master’s. That dealt with the detention and treatment of women during the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya and was the first study to make use of new material on a camp in Gitamayu used to hold "hardcore" female detainees.

Katherine was keen to widen the scope of her research on prisons during the transition from the colonial period and says there is little academic literature on Ugandan prisons at this time, particularly from prison officers' perspective.  “I wanted to understand things from the perspective of the people who worked there,” she says.

Unlike her work in Kenya which was based on archival files, Katherine based her research on a mix of interviews with retired prison officers, lawyers and soldiers and documents from around 20 archives, most of them in Uganda.

Her college, Trinity College, provided her with a pre-research linguistics fellowship to learn Luganda so she spent a total of two years [2014-2016] in Uganda - one for language training and one for fieldwork, although she did research the whole time she was there. In her first year she worked on two archival reconstruction projects, one in Eastern Uganda and the other in Kampala. That gave her a good sense of what was available for research purposes and helped her to make contacts.

Good citizenship

The prison officers she spoke to had mostly worked in the 60’s and 70’s, but she says many prison officers from that time died under Amin’s regime or from old age. The prison service were very helpful in giving her access to the information she needed and to contacts. “My research was independent, but I would like it to give back to the service in some way and to help continue the reform process,” she says.

Katherine found evidence of a strong culture of professionalism in the prison service in the late 50’s and 60’s. “It functioned according to a transnational model of what prison should look like and do - reform prisoners and turn them into good citizens,” she says. “In newly decolonised countries this idea was really appealing. Prison was seen as a way of contributing to nation building and creating better citizens. People became more cynical over time.”

She says the British had promoted the idea of good citizenship to deflect criticism from their colonial policies in the post World War Two period as calls for independence increased. Many Ugandan prison officers at the time were trained in the UK and linked up with senior officers internationally, forming a professional network. “They really believed their work had meaning,” says Katherine.

When Idi Amin came to power, that idea was subject to significant challenge, but, Katherine says that her research shows that, although many left the profession or were killed, many of the prison officers who remained did their best to maintain a degree of continuity in their work. “Abuses did happen in the prison service and conditions were not good, but they were not as bad as the informal centres run by paramilitary groups where political prisoners were detained. People would pray they would go to a government prison as they were more likely to survive there.  International ideas about the profession still had meaning,” she states.

Katherine [2013], who is Canadian and has just started a post-doc at the University of Toronto, has two articles on her research coming out in a special issue of History in Africa journal which she co-edited and is working to turn her PhD into a book manuscript. It will be an academic book, but she is also contemplating how she can write another book on her research aimed at a more popular audience in Uganda. She also hopes to return to Uganda in the summer to work on a new project on the military and is continuing to take an interest in Mau Mau women on which she has published several articles.

She says she very much enjoyed being a Gates Cambridge Scholar during her time doing her PhD at Cambridge. “It is a wonderful community. My experience at Cambridge was in large part due to the dynamic, inspiring and diverse Gates Cambridge community,” she says.