Prisoner, Paralegal, Student and Teacher
Two of our Law Graduates from 2018 - Willis Ochieng and Peter Kago - have carried the roles of prisoner, paralegal, student and teacher. We might find this extraordinary but they are not unique. We share their stories, as we continue our series to celebrate our graduating students from 2018, and look forward to their Graduation Ceremony in Kenya in November this year.
“I would rather spend 20 years in prison with pen and paper than spending 5 years outside without.”
Willis was sentenced to death for robbery with violence at Kisumu High Court in 2002. By 2006, he had exhausted all his appeals. Coming from a very humble background, he was dependant on his maternal uncle for support. He believed his life was over and spent his time often fighting with other inmates. Eventually, however, he began to make friends with the Librarian at Kibos Prison in order to spend his time reading. Later on, he was transferred to Kamiti Maximum Prison to continue his sentence there.
Education and the Possibility of Change
Before prison, Willis had dropped out of school without completing his secondary school education. During this time, life had not been easy for him due to the lack of academic qualifications to find decent employment.
After spending time in prison, he realised that education was the best tool that he could use to shape his life. He enrolled himself in the prison secondary school and sat for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 2012.
In June 2013, APP visited Kamiti Prison to introduce its first legal education programme, a Diploma in Common Law from the University of London (UoL). On hearing this, Willis was delighted to join the course having met the qualifications required for enrollment. Upon successful completion of his Diploma, he enrolled for the UoL LLB scholarship programme sponsored by APP. Willis was one of our students to complete his degree in December 2018.
The Challenge of Studying in Prison
However, studying law and offering legal aid under unique circumstances has not been an easy task. “As a student, I learnt how to balance my time between study time and paralegal work, you have to make a proper timetable if you want to succeed,” says Willis.
Every week, Willis would ensure that he got two days of sleep from 7:00pm to 6:00 am. After which, he would be left with five days to plan his study time. On those days, he would sleep at 8:30pm and wake up at 1:00am when everyone else in his ward is fast asleep, to enjoy some quiet study time until 5:00am. He would then sleep for an hour and wake up at 6:00am with the rest of the inmates for breakfast. By 7:00am he would report at the Kamiti Law Class ready for the day’s classes.
His experience of studying law has earned him respect and dignity among others, inside and outside the prison community. Many of his relatives, who had long distanced themselves from him, began to communicate again and their relationship has gradually begun to improve.
“My family is encouraged by my achievements while in prison. This motivates me.”
Now, as an active paralegal, he sets apart all his afternoons to work on files. In a week, Willis receives at least three files. Overtime, he has worked on many successful appeals which have led to acquittals.
“Many inmates lack legal representation due to poverty, Becoming a lawyer is something I had never dreamt of in my life, but when I got to prison I realised that many inmates were illiterate though anxious to know the contents of their trial records.”
Peter Kago is another 2018 Graduate who has been serving his sentence at Kamiti. In his mid-thirties, Peter has a wife and young children waiting for him at home. Whilst in prison he has been studying law via the University of London’s distance learning programme. He has been trained as a paralegal and regularly advises other prisoners on procedural issues to ensure that they receive a fair hearing.
In the years before prison, Kago was working as a casual labourer overseeing a business ran by his uncle. Despite the fact that he came from a humble background, having lost both his parents at the age of six, he completed his secondary school education. As the youngest
child in a family of 11 children, Kago spent his childhood moving from one home to another, changing schools with every move.
Arrested and Sentenced
Kago was arrested in March 2012 and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for a sexual offence, leaving his wife and two children behind.
Upon arrival in prison, Kago enrolled himself back to secondary school, both as a teacher and as a form 3 student. He thought that by teaching others, he would in turn sharpen his skills and gain a grade A in his final examinations.
Kago was barely 6 months into his sentence, when APP introduced its Law Diploma programme to Kamiti. An officer encouraged him to take up the course, knowing that he had the minimum required qualifications and Kago was selected as one of the students.
Studying Through The Night
Like Willis, Kago found studying in a prison environment very difficult. Alongside the challenge of studying is the frequent worry about their cases and concern about their families back at home.
“I remember one time, the officers were concerned that I was not sleeping. They thought that I was up to something. I was even summoned, only for them to realise that I was studying the law.”
Becoming a Paralegal
“I have gained so much knowledge. Both the law degree and paralegal trainings in prison have sharpened me. I enjoy what I do. I have seen Judges in court ask lawyers to prepare similar submissions to those that are prepared in Kamiti.”
His most memorable case is when one of his clients who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for robbery went for their first appeal only months into his sentence. The Judge reduced his sentence to 5 years and, considering the time he had spent in remand (3 years), deducted it from his sentence. The client is now left with less than a year before he is released.
“There is a lot of self-satisfaction when a client you have assisted goes to court and returns with positive feedback.”
If you’re meeting Kago for the first time, you will soon notice that he is a no-nonsense man and his colleagues, both officers and inmates alike, would describe him as a straight-forward individual.
At the moment, Kago has filed his own application to the courts where he is hoping that he shall be re-sentenced and eventually set free. He further hopes that one day he will be able to stand before the court as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya to help those who need access to affordable and quality legal representation - without having to sell their land and property just to access to justice.
When Kago is not attending to his clients, he spends most of his time reading novels on religious issues. Currently, he has much interest in the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2019 where he has been supporting Nigeria.
Join Us - Become a Changemaker
This month the UN met to review progress on the Sustainable Development Goals #HLPF2019. SDG16, which calls on every society to provide access to justice for all its citizens, recognises that without confidence in the justice system, sustainable development in unattainable.
In East Africa we see justice systems that are not unique. Overcrowded and under-resourced, they reflect the challenges around the world to provide accessible, affordable, people-centered legal advice and support to those who need it most.
The Prisons where we work represent the end of the road for many people. However we see them as places of transformation, where those who have come into conflict with the law are empowered by the law, to begin the process of change.