“I have realised that my dreams are bigger than my fears.”
William Okumu has spent the past ten and a half years at Kamiti Maximum Prison, Kenya, serving a death sentence. He recalls crying throughout his first night behind bars, confined in a corner. But, after being condemned to death at 24 years old, he was released on Monday 13th May. William is a participant in APP’s Justice Changemaker Programme and law graduate from the University of London.
A Life Turned Around
Before coming to prison, William worked as an electrician and events organiser, and admits that he didn't live the most angelic life. However, watching William and the other students, it is clear to see the difference an opportunity, a positive attitude and good friends can make in an unlikely environment. “We’ve known William for 10 years 7 months. It has been a pleasure knowing him. We will miss his charisma; he was always there to break the ice.” Philiph Mueke, a fellow prisoner and law graduate at Kamiti.
William completed his Bachelor in Law Degree [LLB] in 2018. He is one of 15 law graduates from prisons in Kenya and Uganda supported by APP, in partnership with the University of London. He has also completed a diploma in Theology, and become a motivational and inspirational counsellor. In his time in Kamiti, William has supported many other inmates during their difficult early days of prison life, as they learn to accept the situation and attempt to create positivity out of it. “You are engraved in my heart. I will never forget you because you are my family. I have left physically, but we are together in spirit,” he tells his former colleagues.
Re-sentenced and Released
William was re-sentenced following a petition that ruled that Kenya’s mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional. It is this ruling that provided William with the opportunity to submit a fresh mitigation to the court. In his submissions to the court, the prosecution supported William’s mitigation saying that he had performed exceptionally well in custody and had made good use of his time in prison. The Kibera Chief Magistrate, Hon. Gandani, added that the earlier death sentence that was imposed on him is manifestly harsh and re-sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment from his day of arrest. Having served for 10 years 7 months, William immediately attained his freedom.
“I look forward to meeting my 10 year old son.” William’s son was only 3 days old when he was arrested. “I want to go and surprise him in school. I want to play with him in the mud, hoping that it is raining back home. I want to make up for our lost time.”
From ‘behind bars’ to ‘the bar’
A lover of reggae music ('because reggae is really just poetry') and a huge Arsenal fan, William has spent his days in prison reading, writing, studying, listening to music, and doing what he can to support the men around him; talking with them of the many challenges inmates face upon arriving in prison.
“For me there is no greater motivation than serving others and uplifting the weak and marginalized among us.” William prays that one day he will be able to offer support and advice to people before they end up in prison. He further adds that he will use every opportunity he gets to speak of where he has come from as an ambassador of APP’s work and the rehabilitation programmes offered by the Kenya Prisons Service.
“APP gave me a vision that I would otherwise not have had within these four walls that have been my home for the past 10 years. The LLB program has really changed the way I viewed everything, my confidence levels have gone up and now I have respect both for others and myself. Despite being behind bars, life has been so real and fulfilling and I have a dream of one day joining the bar. Through the APP sponsored programme I have learned a lot that I would never have known, this encounter has been miraculous.”
William talks passionately about the ways in which he tries to encourage people, and the pride he takes in having had the knowledge to support his peers in their cases thanks to the University of London law degree. The opportunity to study law has restored his dignity. “I have realised that my dreams are bigger than my fears.” William affirms that many inmates have been victims of injustice, because they lack knowledge of the very basics of the law.
Laughter for the Soul
Despite the challenges he’s faced, laughter seems to be the best medicine. William has one of the most infectious smiles in the world, such that other inmates and APP staff cannot help but smile in his presence. When he smiles, the grin transforms his face, and his eyes twinkle with mischief, best seen when he 'teaches' you Swahili entirely and intentionally badly. “Watch out for William. He's the comedian!”the other students will claim laughing and poking fun at their friend. “I never get sick”, claims William laughing. Perhaps because when you laugh as much as William does, and bring out the laughter in others, that is enough to keep your body and soul healthy.
He records all of his daily experiences in his diary, and he claims that although some of these experiences are sad, he tries to always focus on the positives. Whenever he met someone motivational in prison, he asked them to sign his diary with some inspirational words- 'Their words always remind me that someone, somewhere, cares.