Prison-Based Advocates Bridging The Justice Gap

Prison-Based Advocates Bridging The Justice Gap

Around the world there is a justice crisis. Our approach is to empower those who have come into conflict with the law, not just to help themselves, but to become advocates for others. Across Kenya and Uganda we provide open air legal awareness sessions as well as legal support and services in prison-based legal aid clinics. In these clinics, trained paralegals - prisoners and prisoner officers - provide vital access to justice.

Legal Aid Clinics

In Kenya, we have established eight prison-based legal aid clinics at Maximum Security prisons for men and women, as well as remand prisons.

At Kamiti Maximum Prison last month, 125 clients were served at the clinic. Two clients were acquitted, and among them was William Okumu, one of our University of London graduates. After a successful petition, his sentence was reduced to 10 years - which he had already served - having been condemned to death at 24 years old. Read more of his story here.

Legal Awareness Sessions

During May we held 16 open air legal awareness sessions in Kenya, with a total of 54 sessions having been held since January. These sessions provide an opportunity to provide very basic legal awareness to as many prisoners as possible. This is then followed up with one-on-one appointments.

Last month APP had the opportunity to reach out to a new prison, Makueni Remand Prison, without a formal legal aid program. Meetings with the Officers in Charge at nearby Machakos Prison, provided the support for a two day awareness drive.  

Makueni’s prison has a population of 226 inmates, mostly charged with minor offences, with 35 women also held. The main challenge faced by inmates is a lack of the most basic knowledge on legal matters. This problem is compounded by the illiteracy levels. Given that the majority of inmates cannot afford an advocate to represent them in court, they represent themselves at the trial stage.

The awareness session handled the rights of an arrested person, the trial process, mitigation sentencing, judgement, appeals, alternative dispute resolutions and court etiquette. During the entire session, the audience was very attentive with many of trying to grasp as much information as possible. Most of the inmates had no prior knowledge on some of the issues tackled.

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One on One Session

Due to the large volume of questions during the open air session, the team decided to offer a one-on-one session to provide direct legal aid. Some of the issues that were tackled included how to seek for bond reduction, how to approach family related matters for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), how to give a defense, how to prepare mitigation, and the problems arising from miscommunication between the documentation office, the courts and the inmates. In total we were able to attend about 52 inmates on one on one basis and hope to follow-up on their progress later.

The Makueni community was very receptive to both sessions. The Officers in Charge and the prison staff were excited that the APP team had addressed so many issues. They also stated that this kind of awareness session was pivotal to the psychological state of their inmates, most of whom were deeply concerned and disturbed by their lack of legal knowledge, failing to argue their cases in court.

Both officers and inmates were amused that the prison officers and inmates at Machakos were working together. They envied this cooperation and many requested APP to introduce the program to their prison to enable harmony between the inmates and the prison staff there. Our paralegal teams from both Machakos Main and Women Prisons were also very excited about the opportunity to provide legal services in a new environment.

Reaching 1000’s With Basic Legal Knowledge

Across the prisons where we work in Uganda, 173 legal awareness sessions were carried out last month (May 2019). These sessions were conducted by paralegals with the support of APP’s staff. Over 10,000 individuals are believed to have attended, both inmates and prison officers. As a result, prisoners are becoming their own advocates, able to represent themselves in court and mitigate their sentences. Where relevant, many have managed to obtain bail, have their cases dismissed and get non-custodial sentences. One of those is Agaba Clever.

Earlier this year, 33 year old Agaba was arrested after a fight with a friend, to whom he had lent money. He was arraigned in court and remanded to Kasanda Prison on the same day.

Prison has been very bad for me and has left me disorganized and particularly confused because of my lack of legal knowledge. Being someone who tries to avoid trouble, it has been hard for me to adjust to prison life.”

A few months later, two prison officers trained by APP as Auxiliary Paralegals invited all prisoners to attend a legal awareness session where they received advice on court procedures, bail and mitigation including how cases can be dismissed. After the session, Agaba approached one of the paralegals and shared his story. He explained how his complainant had never appeared in court and how he had so far been on remand for more than 70 days. The paralegal advised him that next time he appeared in Court, he should raise his hand and request that his case be dismissed for want of prosecution.

I came to prison without knowing anything about the law and what to do with my case. I couldn’t imagine that this case could be dismissed. However on my day in court, my file was called. I did exactly what I was told and, indeed, my case was dismissed!

Providing Legal Aid and Reducing Overcrowded Prisons

Ugandan prisons have been at almost 300% capacity in recent years. According to Pesacheck, “The overcrowding is attributed to a backlog in cases in Ugandan courts”. Without representation many prisoners - sometimes as many as half - are held on remand, awaiting trial. A radical approach to the justice system is necessary to relieve the stress on the system, which is the same in many places around the world. Whilst some are held awaiting trial, those receiving sentencing are often imprisoned for many years, simply without the legal knowledge to challenge a sentence that may not be justified.

Our approach is to empower those who have come into conflict with the law, not just to help themselves, but to provide a much needed solution to our justice crisis. Agaba Clever shares his thanks with those who helped him, “I want to thank the APP Project Officer for her endless support and encouragement and the Auxiliary Paralegals for their support too. I give special thanks to African Prison Project for training the Auxiliary Paralegals who know us better than any other person.”

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Support our Work

If you’d like to support a prisoner with legal training and provide access to justice for those without legal representation, find out how you can give now.