Access to Justice in A "Peculiar Environment"
Last month we opened our first Legal Aid Clinic at Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda. Mr. Ssentalo Moses (SSP), the Officer in Charge, stated that the clinic was the first of its kind in such a setting, “Our hope is in you … APP has set a precedent in prison by piloting a prison-based Legal Aid clinic...”
The Officer in Charge and other guests inspecting the information desks outside the Legal Aid Clinic
The day began with an inspection of the Clinic and the Justice Changemaker Services (JCMS) offered by APP, including the Okimanyi? Project which is part of our original Health and Life Skills Programme.
This was followed by a debate between the auxiliary paralegals and the prison Secondary School students. The final debate was the result of qualifier face-offs during the weeks before and attracted a full house of participants who jumped at any opportunity to contribute to the motion. It was won by the students.
The OC Mr. Ssentalo Moses handing over the trophy to the winners of the debate
The Headteacher in his remarks stated that, “debating helps one to improve on their communication skills and grammar which is key to excelling in their English language and general paper, not to mention helping them build their confidence.” The day’s judge was Ms. Nahemye Victoria (ASP) Legal Officer from the Uganda Prisons Service. A trophy and some gifts were handed over to the winners and all the participants including those that had attended and were a part of the audience.
Our guests also included the Headteacher, Mr. Gilbert Nuwamanya; the APP Program’s Coordinator, Mercedes Oviedo De Mock; the JCMS Manager, Sharon Twikirize.
A group photo of some of some of the participants at the opening of the Legal Aid Clinic at Luzira Upper Prison
The Work of a Legal Aid Clinic
A legal aid clinic provides free legal advice and assistance supported by volunteer lawyers. Usually it is a not-for-profit law practice serving the public interest and is often staffed by law students to gain hands-on-legal experience.
Our clinic is no different. Except that our law students are the prisoners themselves.
As an APP auxiliary paralegal they can assist other prisoners with their cases. They provide advice from the legal training they have received, assisting with documents, plea hearings and court conduct, that can make all the difference for someone awaiting trial.
For the justice system it means a well-prepared prisoner and a well-documented hearing. That means a much greater chance of appropriate sentencing or release. And all that contributes to greater access to justice for the prisoner and a step in the right direction for an overcrowded prison system.
Setting a Precedent in a Prison
The highlight of the day was the number of inmates who flocked to the information desks to find out more about APP’s Services. A group of APP staff and volunteers were available at the Clinic with posters and pictures illustrating the trial process to the inmate community. The need for the services became even more evident when the inmates deviated from the awareness sessions to ask about their individual cases.
In his speech the Officer in Charge emphasized his commitment towards seeing the Clinic and its activities’ succeed. The inmates could not hide their excitement when he assured the APP administration of his support, “For us at Upper Prisons, with the permission of the headquarters, [we] are committed to see that the program is a success.” However this did not go without caution when he reminded his listeners of the need to comply with the rules of engagement: “the program is going to operate in a peculiar environment which is not going to change, so let whoever is going to be involved with the Clinic comply…”
The Officer in Charge also expressed his concern that inmates would learn the trial process as a whole, including the committal processes, and on the issue of file-tracing, “it is indeed our hope that APP will support such people whose files are missing and trace them.”
Sharon Twikirize, the JCM Services Manager thanked the entire team that had been involved in the preparations towards the opening of the Clinic including the Okimanyi team. She also acknowledged the challenges that the inmates face especially with tracing lost files. She urged the inmate community to be patient and collaborative with those appointed to work in the clinic and assured all the intended beneficiaries of the services of the department she leads.