Justice from an unlikely place

I saw two boys standing at the main entrance of Kamiti prison as I approached the security check-out point. I’d just concluded a routine visit to some of the law students (both staff members and prisoners) that my organisation supports.

As I approached the checkpoint, they broke into wide smiles. I quickly realised these smiles were not directed at me, but at Peter Ouko – the inmate walking me to the checkpoint. It was an open-day for prisoners’ families, so I assumed the smiley boys were Peter’s relatives.

However, Peter later explained that he had met for the first time only a few weeks before, when they reached out, seeking his legal advice and support. The two boys had been in a dispute with their former employer and could not afford the legal representation required to pursue a remedy in court. They remembered a report from a country newspaper about Peter and how he had been awarded a Diploma in the Common Law by the University of London – making him the first Kenyan prisoner to receive legal qualifications behind prison walls. The boys tracked down Peter’s prison, organised a meet-up, and explained their legal problem. For the next few weeks Peter drafted the necessary court documents and provided them with the legal advice they required to further pursue a remedy in court. A few weeks ago, I was delighted to learn that the boys have been awarded just over one million Kenyan Shillings (1,000,000 Kshs) approximately nine thousand US dollars ($ 9,600) by the court.

Pascal Kakuru, an inmate in his third year of his law degree, currently sits as Legal Advisor on the Human Rights Committee at Uganda’s only maximum-security prison in Kampala. The Committee, which comprises of both prison staff and prisoners, has the responsibility of monitoring the human rights situation at the prison and reporting arising issues to the administration. Their role also extends to providing basic legal advice and support to the most vulnerable people in prison, those unable to afford the services of a lawyer.

Inmates and prison staff advising prisoners is nothing new, but prisoners speaking on behalf of other prisoners in open court, or advising non-prisoners on the law when they visit prison, is new-unchartered territory. Currently there are 48 prisoners and prison staff in Uganda and Kenya studying law under the APP Leadership Programme, in partnership with the University of London. The APP provides financial support, mentoring and guidance to prisoners and prison staff who are pursuing diplomas and degrees in law, under the university’s International Distance Learning programme. We are working to create the next generation of penal reformers in Africa, working to provide them with the confidence, social and professional networks, and academic skills to become ‘force multipliers’ and lead change across the continent. These law leaders will ensure that African prisons become more humane, rehabilitation focused institutions, orientated towards the positive transformation of their wards. The prisoners and prison staff are providing the much needed legal support and advice required for prisoners, particularly those without a lawyer, to attain justice. This support includes drafting relevant court documents and submissions on behalf of such prisoners. They are contributing to reducing the amount of time prisoners spend on pre-trial detention and ensuring access to free legal advice and reducing prison congestion.

We also work to ‘break down’ prison walls – walls behind which the plight of our beneficiaries is often hidden due to the nature of incarceration. For many ‘seeing is believing’, yet prisoners are often hidden beyond the scope of vision, allowing no one to see their struggle. To address this, the APP facilitate prison visits for the judiciary and our partners, providing opportunities to see the transformation that is possible behind prison walls. The team from Virgin Unite recently joined us on such a visit to Kamiti prison and came face to face with the prisoners and the prison staff who are leading this revolutionary change in their communities. Prisoners and prison staff attend their daily law classes together and support each other as they study and prepare for exams. Here, in the law class, there are no barriers.