Despite pursuing a career in journalism and now communications, it appears that four years spent studying law at university has finally begun to hit home. Specifically, an interest in how we judge, condemn and imprison our fellow members of society. This renewed curiosity, which has already led to volunteering as a mentor at my local prison, has also prompted me to look further afield.
African Prisons Project (APP) is a charity focused on equipping prison inmates and officers with practical legal training and qualifications. When I came across APP’s unique model – which puts the power of the law into the hands of the most vulnerable – I immediately wanted to know more. A first step was for members of the Corporate Reputation team and I to put on a pro-bono narrative workshop with the charity’s founder in Spring 2018. Fast forward twelve months and – thanks to the Edelman Escape initiative, which provides successful applicants with $1,000 to pursue a personal goal or challenge – I was on a plane to visit APP’s operations across Uganda and Kenya.
During my discussions with journalists in the lead up, I’d discovered that APP was reasonably well covered in the region, receiving visits from publications such as the Economist. So, for me, the trip presented more of an opportunity to learn about the landscape in East Africa, and about how we can help support some of the most vulnerable in the region.
The learning curve began the moment I set foot inside Uganda’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 for which they’ve been imprisoned, 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” who fall between the cracks, including those appealing against unfair or effectively lifetime 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.
A second profound learning from visits to women’s prisons across Uganda and Kenya, was that the need for APP’s services in these institutions was greater still. Women of a wide spectrum of ages, including some cradling young infants, were relying heavily on the legal clinics to decode their various situations. 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. I sat in on an interview with a sixteen-year-old girl who had been “dropped off” by family members who hadn’t left contact details. She was holding a well-thumbed copy of Harry Potter as she spoke to us. There was no charge. “She shouldn’t be here,” said the paralegal.
A third, final and more holistic learning, was about the illiteracy and inequality levels (more than 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 figure out 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.
If you would like to find out more about the work of African Prisons Project or donate to their cause – please visit: www.africanprisons.org