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Imprisoned Potential

Imprisoned Potential

Nelson Mandela once said, "no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails." Under United Nations standards for the treatment of prisoners, the Mandela Rules, all prisoners should be treated with respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. Yet reality is often far from aspiration. Around the world, prison systems are in crisis. The number of people incarcerated is growing, the rates of re-offending remain high and too many prisons are dangerously under-resourced. But what if the very people that society has written off can become the instruments of change? 

Alexander McLean, lawyer and humanitarianAs nations grapple with the challenges posed by criminal justice issues, solutions are sought from across the legal system. But rarely within the prison walls themselves. After witnessing the degradation in Ugandan prisons during his gap year, lawyer and humanitarian Alexander McLean (Law, 2007) realised that change must come from within.

With East African cells filled by the poorest, least educated and most vulnerable, around 80% of inmates cannot afford basic access to justice. Most never meet a lawyer. But what if the power of the law was placed into the hands of the poor?

Seeing the incredible potential within the prisoners he met, Alexander established the African Prisons Project (APP) to drive an innovative new approach to penal reform from the inside out by providing legal education to prisoners and prison staff in Uganda and Kenya. In a little over 10 years, APP has grown into one of Africa's leading charities, inspiring change that transcends borders. But it all began with the stark reality that not all lives are equal. 

"When I was 18, I volunteered with Hospice Africa Uganda," explains Alexander. "One day we went to Uganda's main hospital and I came across a man lying on the floor by the toilets. He was naked on a plastic sheet, in a pool of urine, with his back and bottom rotting down to the bone. I asked a nurse about him, and she said they were waiting for him to die as he didn't have any relatives to look after him. I ended up spending five days washing him, feeding him, caring for him before he died. He was put on a trolley on top of a dead woman and I was told they would go in a mass grave with everyone else who had no one to bury them. My life changed then because I realised there are people whose lives just have no value."

Spending a further three months at the hospital caring for abandoned people, Alexander encountered prisoners, often teenage boys like himself, dying of starvation and dehydration. Determined to see where they had come from, Alexander visited Luzira maximum security prison and was shocked by the appalling living conditions and tough environments faced by inmates. Returning to the UK to begin his legal studies at Nottingham, he established APP as a student society, with alumni support, to raise funds and recruit volunteers. Visiting Africa at every opportunity, the APP established clinics and libraries at prisons throughout East Africa, becoming a registered charity in 2007. But it quickly became apparent that issues in African prisons went far beyond facilities. 

"I started to see that the needs of prisoners are complicated, and that to effect change, you need to understand the prison environment and the complexities of the justice system. With almost everyone that I met, I saw that with access to a lawyer, they wouldn't be here because it's the poorest people who don't understand the law and have to defend themselves in court who end up in prison. So, rather than working to make prisons better, let's work to get people out of them." 

African Prisons Project's vision is to develop changemakers within prisons who can use the law to bring justice to the most vulnerable in society. Through innovative programmes, prisoners and prison staff are given the opportunity to pursue legal education and human rights training, allowing them to navigate the justice system and provide legal support within their community. With a powerful combination of high-quality legal education and first-hand experience of conflict with the law, APP is establishing an impressive community of penal reformers with incredible potential to shape the law in favour of the poor. And that's what makes APP's work so radical and exciting. 

"Through history, many remarkable leaders have spent time in prison – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi – and shown that it's possible for people in prison to do remarkable things. In society's eyes, you may not have much to offer. But if in prison you can see a person's talents and potential, and harness it, that person can leave a totally transformed individual with a huge amount to offer their family, their community and their nation. I find it incredible that it's possible for someone to enter prison in a country like Uganda or Kenya, among the world's poorest, and leave with a degree, their life transformed." 


If we're in a position to give people opportunities to change their lives, we should embrace that... Every one of us can have a future of tremendous potential regardless of our past.


Today, there are more than 200 paralegals in prison communities in Uganda and Kenya, with more than 60 students studying for a University of London law degree by correspondence. In 2018 alone, an average of 250 people a month are being released from prison, having had access to legal support from the APP community. On the horizon is the establishment of the world's first prison-based law firm, with experienced lawyers working alongside prisoners and prison staff. 

"Members of our community are already working on people's cases in prison, but we also want to take on challenges to try and change the law so it's fairer for the poor, like Susan Kigula's case. I first met Susan at the women's prison in Kampala when I was 19. She'd been sentenced to death a few years before, but she was a leader in her prison community, establishing a choir, dance troupe, church and school from death row. I saw a woman who was full of energy and life, despite her sentence. In 2012, she was admitted to study for a law degree by correspondence, our first female student. Representing 417 death row inmates, Susan led a landmark case in the Ugandan constitutional court which challenged the death penalty. Her case resulted in the mandatory death sentence being abolished, and Susan and hundreds of others were released from death row. She graduated with her degree as a free woman and now works with the APP. She's shown that our situations don't have to define us. We want to create a community of people, like Susan, who leave prison in a position to make, shape and implement the law."

Time and again, studies show that when prisoners are given opportunities to gain an education and find employment, recidivism is less likely. Yet the stigma of a criminal record continues to prevent ex-offenders from contributing to society. UK Government figures (December 2016), for example, show that only 26% of UK prisoners enter employment on release. Challenging conceptions of what prisoners can achieve, the APP believes that each of us has more to offer than the worst thing we've done. And that's something that prison systems around the world, including the UK, could learn from. 

"I think sometimes in the UK, among conversations about austerity and making cuts, we can lose sight of the resources that we have. UK prisons have many examples of best practice, built on centuries of reform, but one of the things that inspires me most about the prison services we work with is that they have aspiration for their prisoners. I worry that we don't always share that aspiration in the UK. We're hoping to use some of the lessons we've learned in British prisons, bringing together prisoners, prison staff, politicians and judges to consider how we can create a society where everyone understands the law. We have incredible law firms and universities in the UK, so there is huge potential to develop opportunities for prisoners in Britain. 

"In the years that I've been doing this work, I've had my mind blown again and again by people that on the surface look like they don't have much to contribute but then do remarkable things. If we're in a position to give people opportunities to change their lives, we should embrace that. I think about my own experience, receiving a government-funded place to attend a fee-paying school and then a scholarship at Nottingham because my family didn't have much money, and I see that people saw potential in me and invested in me. I want to pay that forward. Every one of us can have a future of tremendous potential regardless of our past."

The issues facing criminal justice systems may be difficult and complex. But the African Prisons Project message is simple. Change can come from the most unlikely of places. Prison can break a person – or make them. A prisoner today could lead a nation tomorrow.  

From death row to law graduate

Peter Ouko met Alexander McLean while on death row in Kamaiti Maximum Prison in Kenya. After being given the opportunity to study law, he became the first inmate in Kenya to graduate with a Diploma in Law. Winning his freedom in October 2016, Peter works with APP as an ambassador and champions access to justice for inmates in Africa. Peter shared his story at the TEDGlobal conference in 2017.    


Faye HaslamWords: Faye Haslam (History, 2012), Connect Staff Writer

Nottingham graduate, writer and speaker. Curious creative inspired by film, music, history, knowledge and big ideas. A traveller at heart, always planning the next big adventure.