Joseph Karanja was arrested in the year 2000. Upon completing his trial process in 2001, he was sentenced to death. However, in 2009 he was one of 4,000 prisoners whose death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.
As a death row inmate at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Joseph noticed that many of the inmates he was locked up in with were illiterate. Without any legal assistance, he often observed prisoners simply copying each other’s grounds of appeal as a one-size-fits-all approach, without taking into consideration the different factors involved in their case.
Starting A School Behind Bars
It was at that point that Joseph proposed starting a school in his prison ward, providing a primary level education for prisoners. In time each ward opened their own school. Soon the numbers of those interested in studying increased and the prison opened an academy. There Joseph taught science and later when a high school was added, he began teaching biology and chemistry.
Before prison, Joseph had always wanted to study law but had not met the qualifications needed to receive government sponsorship. In prison, his passion only grew deeper, he received paralegal training and served as the Chief Registrar of Paralegals within the prison.
Becoming a Student
Later when APP introduced the University of London long-distance learning programme, offering legal studies, Joseph was recommended for the course by the prison authorities and was later trained as a paralegal by APP.
“When I first started the programme as a common diploma student, we had no teachers (within the prison) and we didn’t know how to prepare for exams in order to properly tackle exam questions. It was very hard to study but with commitment, I made it.”
Joseph was one of nine Kenyan students graduating [LLB] from the University of London in 2018.
The Justice Changemaker Programme
APP supports both prisoners and prison staff across Kenyan and Uganda prisons through our Justice Changemaker Programme. Together they study law with support from volunteer teaching staff.
“Attaining a law degree makes me feel competitive enough to face the world. My daughter, feels like I have set the pace for her and my family is proud of me.”
His colleagues describe him as an individual who speaks with certainty and a team leader who gives sound advice. In his role as a paralegal, Joseph is known to be well versed in the judicial system and is the legal researcher of the team.
Recently, Joseph made an application to the Chief Magistrate of Machakos Law Courts to permit him to act as an intermediary for three inmates. The court accepted his application and Joseph was able to stand before the court, providing their legal representation. This resulted in the release of one of his clients with the other two receiving reduced sentences.
A Case Study
In April, one of Joseph’s clients was released, a man called Eustace Ndirangu who was arrested together with his co-accused back in 2001 for the offence of robbery with violence. He had spent close to twenty years in prison.
In December 2017, the Supreme Court annulled the mandatory statute denying accused persons the chance to offer mitigation which may lead to a more lenient sentence than the mandatory death sentence prescribed. This decision means that courts now have the discretion to decide on the sentence in regard to an individual case.
It is on this basis that Eustace made an application to go back to the court that originally sentenced him to death, to offer his mitigating circumstances and convince the court to review the sentence that it had initially imposed on him.
In November 2018, the court substituted his death sentence to life imprisonment. This was of huge significance to him. Unfortunately, the court failed to take into account the period he had stayed in custody during the trial process in order to offer him a remission. Therefore, Eustace still had 3 more years to serve on his sentence. He came to a APP’s legal aid clinic in December 2018 where Joseph drafted an application to the High Court, appealing this decision. As a result, on the 30th April 2019, Eustace sentence was reduced. Eustace is now a free man, trying to catch up with how fast life has changed in his small village in Nyeri where he was born and raised.
For Joseph there are many aspects within the justice system that make him uncomfortable. For instance, when an immediate family member of an inmate dies, there are no arrangements for them to pay their last respects. Instead they remain confined to mourn alone in prison. He hopes that he can change that. “I hope that one day I will become a policy maker so that instead of assisting one, I can assist many.”
But his biggest hope is that one day he too will be released from prison.
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