NAIROBI — In Kenya and Uganda, prisoners are getting a second chance at life through a formal law school curriculum for inmates provided by the African Prisons Project (APP).
The African Prisons Project was founded in 2004 by Alexander McLean, a British activist and lawyer, after he visited many prisons around Africa and observed a variety of problems. He witnessed bad overcrowding, unacceptably long waiting periods for trial and inadequate prisoner access to professional legal counsel. He also saw that most of the prisoners came from very poor backgrounds and had not had many opportunities in life.
McLean thought that the best way to improve these issues would be through education. Specifically, McLean believed that if prisoners were taught law, they would be better able to understand their rights and their case. With this knowledge, prisoners would have the tools to advocate for themselves in a courtroom and possibly be released from prison in the case that they might not really need to be there.
Currently, APP operates such law school curriculum for inmates in 30 prisons. Some adult prisoners have never even been to school until they participate in the APP’s programs. The APP puts prisoners into classrooms where they study literacy and math. Once a prisoner masters literacy and math, APP gives them the opportunity to study for a degree in law through an external program with the University of London. While inmates are studying law, they hold ‘moot’ courts. In ‘moot’ courts, a courtroom scenario is recreated, and the inmates practice how to behave and speak as a lawyer in front of a judge.
As part of their degree requirements, the law students are expected to help other prisoners with legal issues. For example, they help other prisoners write up their appeals. Some have even helped release fellow prisoners by writing appeals. In fact, the legal education that the APP offers has brought about the release of 3,000 prisoners in Kenya and Uganda.
The inmates are very satisfied with the programs offered by the APP. They appreciate finally having the opportunity to get an education, and classrooms have an air of discipline and respect. On being interviewed about his experience studying in prison, inmate Philip Maingi even went so far as saying, “maybe being in prison was the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Many former prisoners are also grateful to the APP for giving them the intellectual skills to represent themselves in court and gain their freedom.
Judges are often impressed with the APP’s law students for the eloquent and passionate way they argue their cases in court, and Uganda’s most senior judge even invited a graduate from the program to join the judiciary. Even those who are not able to acquire their freedom still find a new sense of pride in their law degree and help other prisoners with their law studies or appeals.
The goal of the APP is to turn prisons into a place for rehabilitation, growth and transformation. Prisoners who take advantage of the APP’s law school curriculum for inmates find themselves empowered and ready to make a positive change in their community. The APP aims to change prisoners for the better; to give them a high-quality education so that they can get themselves out of prison and start a new, purposeful life.
– Anna Gargiulo