Charlie Binder - Edelman, London - On His Visit To East Africa

Charlie Binder - Edelman, London - On His Visit To East Africa

In March 2019 Charlie Binder - Senior Account Manager at Edelman, London - visited our teams in Kenya and Uganda. He shares his impressions of the people he met and the work being done to ensure access to justice amongst the prisoners and prison officers there. 

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Exploring Access to Justice in East Africa

PR is an industry renowned for benefiting from personnel experienced across a wide range of professions. Marketeers, SPADs, journalists – even lawyers. And though I can’t profess to having ever qualified, after a substantial “cooling-off period” following studying law at university and despite working full time in communications, it would appear my interest in the subject remains. Specifically, in how we judge, condemn and imprison our fellow members of society. This curiosity has led to mentoring at my local prison in London, to looking a little further afield.

When I came across the unique model of African Prisons Project (APP) – which puts the power of the law into the hands of the most vulnerable – I couldn’t help but want to know more. This led to members of my company’s Corporate Reputation team and I putting on a pro-bono narrative workshop with APP in Spring 2018. Fast forward twelve months and – thanks to the help of a grant from my employer – I was on a plane to visit APP’s operations across Uganda and Kenya.

It was then that I made a deal with myself – no “KPIs” (key performance indicators) – just learning. And the learning curve began the moment I set foot inside Kampala’s Luzira Prison. After crossing the prison’s dusty courtyard, I entered the Legal Aid Clinic which was run exclusively by prisoners and prison officers – some of whom hold Bachelor of Laws degrees from the University of London, as facilitated by APP.

In my discussions with the paralegals, I learned that inmates often don’t understand the charges levied against them, let alone their options for defending themselves in a court of law. In both countries, the state only provides you with a lawyer for the most serious of offences (such as murder, rape or aggravated robbery) but otherwise – unless reasonably wealthy – you’re effectively on your own. This is where APP comes in, offering free, professional-quality services to “clients” that fall between the cracks, including those appealing unfair or effectively terminal sentences (120 years). The professionalism of their practice speaks to APP’s grander vision, which includes creating the world’s first prison-based law college and law firm.

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A second profound learning from visits to women’s prisons across Uganda and Kenya, was the need for APP’s services in these institutions was greater still. Women of a wide spectrum of ages, some cradling young infants, were relying heavily on the legal clinics to decode their various predicaments. Paralegals were helping them apply for bail and enter plea bargains – agreements made with complainants before trial – that typically receive a more favourable response from a judge.

A third, final and more holistic learning, was about the illiteracy and inequality levels (over 40% of Kenya’s population live on less than $2 per day) that blight the societal landscapes of these countries. The David vs. Goliath situations featuring illiterate, lawyer-less prisoners – often held for months or years before seeing a judge – within harsh, stretched judicial systems were numerous. But what was most profound, beyond the overcrowded facilities and sullen faces, was how a modest amount of legal knowhow was eagerly transforming lives. Not just lives in prison but lives outside, such as those of the family or community members of inmates who would eventually return to them.

Being citizens of Western society, whose legal systems – while far from perfect – offer comparatively wholesome support, I believe our job is simply to increase our awareness of these situations and entertain how we might help. As I was reminded so affectingly by one prisoner, “We’re all part of the same global community”, and much like the education being offered by APP, a little bit of support can go a long way.

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