Justice Champions of Change:

The prisoners who learn the law to become justice changemakers


The latest in our Justice Champions of Change series is African Prisons Project. Founded in 2007, the NGO works in Uganda and Kenya to bring justice to the most vulnerable.

The organisation’s Justice Changemaker program provides education and legal advice that assists prisoners to know the law and use it to represent themselves at hearings. It also trains prison officers to respond to prisoners’ needs and empower them to resolve their cases. Many prisoners go on to become educators themselves, supporting their peers to manage their own cases and represent themselves in court.

More than 3,000 people have been released from prison after receiving services provided by African Prisons Project students. Many students have gone on to acquire legal qualifications so that they can help others to secure fairer outcomes and advocate for more just laws.

Mark Weston interviewed Peter Tibigambwa, Regional Director, and Matteo Cassini, Community Development Manager, to find out more.

Legal awareness session — Mukueni Prison — Kenya

Mark: What would you say are the main problems with prisons in Africa?

Matteo: Overcrowding is a major problem — in Kenya the average is two and a half people sleeping in a space designed for one, and in Uganda it’s almost three and a half. In both Kenya and Uganda, more than half of those who are detained haven’t been convicted but are awaiting trial.

Peter: A related problem is that the vast majority of people accused of a crime never have access to any sort of legal representation. They have to navigate the entire legal process on their own.

If it’s a capital offence, the state has to provide legal representation at the point of the hearing. Even then the accused often only see a lawyer on the day of the trial, maybe ten minutes before the hearing.

The majority of criminal cases, however, are minor offences, where the state doesn’t have to provide a lawyer. Most of the accused of such offences are poor and can’t afford representation.

Mark: Would you say the focus in African prisons is on punishment or rehabilitation?

Peter: Compared to what I’ve seen and read about elsewhere, and particularly compared to the UK and the US, there is a stronger focus in Africa on rehabilitation. The process before imprisonment is very punishment-focused, but once someone is in prison the focus is on trying to rehabilitate them.

Mark: How do you work and how do you approach the prison authorities?

Matteo: We assess where there are pockets of innovation and change within the existing system and empower people who are in those pockets to lead the change. We try to work alongside rather than against the authorities.

We promote the idea that prisoners have the talent to make great change in their communities and in the world. We’ve found that while many countries invest in the education and development of prisoners, most of the time they invest in their hands rather than their heads. And we want to change that, to show that there are bright minds in prisons that can make a huge contribution to justice reform and help make their societies more just.

Mark: What are the main areas you work on?

Peter: On the one hand it’s about identifying prisoners with the potential, skills and desire to influence their communities in the area of social justice. We work with these people to upgrade their knowledge and support them to work on their own cases and on other prisoners’ cases.

Secondly, we work to bridge the gap between communities and state institutions — to ensure that lawyers, judges, magistrates and anyone within the criminal justice system have interface time with prisoners and with the community outside prisons.

And thirdly, we look at how we can turn the solutions that we have achieved at grassroots level into policy reform.

Mark: Have your projects had any impacts on policies or prison regulations in Uganda and Kenya?

Peter: One of our students, Susan Kigula, instigated a petition to abolish the death penalty in Uganda. After a few years the campaign reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that the death sentence should no longer be mandatory in cases of murder, that death sentences should be commuted to life imprisonment if they were not carried out within three years, and that all those who had been sentenced to death had a right to a retrial in light of these changes.

We are also looking at strategic public interest litigation generally, and at how we can reform unjust laws by empowering those who have suffered from them to challenge them.

Susan Kigula

Mark: I read about your in-house training courses to help people become paralegals or peer educators. What’s the incentive for prison staff to do these courses — isn’t it just extra work for them?

Peter: It’s not really extra work. Prisoners often ask the prison officer questions if they are going to court is, and we prepare the officers to deal with that. Prison officers are happy to be trained because it makes their work easier.

Mark: And what’s the incentive for prisoners to do these courses?

Peter: At an individual level, it helps them to explore alternatives for accessing justice. A lot of people we have trained to work on their cases have ended up being released from prison, either on bail or by being acquitted or by having their conviction overturned.

For a lot of prisoners, too, there is a strong desire to change the lives of the people who are in prison with them. We give a tiny stipend of about $12 a month, but the real incentive is to support those they live with.

Mark: Can you give me an example of such a case?

Peter: I’ll give you two examples. One is a man named Pascal, who was on death row in Uganda for murder. He had state-provided lawyers because it was a capital offence, but he worked on his case and prepared his mitigation submission himself. His death sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment. Later he become an economics teacher in the prison secondary school, received a law degree from the University of London, and has taken the lead in establishing the first legal aid clinic in Uganda’s biggest prison. His release date is this year, and after it he will continue to do legal aid work with African Prisons Project.

Another example is Morris, a police officer in Kenya. In 2005 he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to death. He was very depressed, and he had run-ins with the prison guards. At one point he considered committing suicide or trying to escape so he would be shot. One of the guys we were training as a student told him to read some books about the law. A few months later he started to read one of the books and it interested him, and he ended up joining the training programme. He worked with his classmates on his case, and he was acquitted of all charges and released in September last year after 13 years in prison. He is currently employed with us in Kenya.

Pascal Kukuru, APP Graduation

Mark: How do you measure your success?

Peter: Our success is measured by the number of people we support that get released, and we look at how long it takes us to close cases. At a higher level we look at the extent to which state institutions are engaging in prisoner matters.

Mark: Are donors interested in your work, or do they consider it too politically sensitive?

Peter: There has been a crisis in funding for justice work across the world — I think it’s declined by 40% over the past couple of years. That tells you how much donors are interested in our kind of work. And for us it’s even more difficult because while organisations that try to get innocent people out of prison are attractive to donors, we are interested in people getting a fair hearing whether they have committed a crime or not, so everyone says, ‘you’re trying to get criminals out of prison’.

Mark: Finally, what achievements would you say you’re most proud of?

Matteo: Over the last four years I’ve mostly been working with prison officers. I’ve been really inspired by the way people go out of their way to support others just out of their love of humanity. Prison officers are frowned upon as a profession, but we have worked with governors who take resources out of their own pockets to support prisoners or to establish infrastructure and improve systems, just because of the deep care and love they have for others. This is really something that has motivated me and others to provide them with platforms, networks and opportunities to do more of what they are already doing.

Peter: It’s also very satisfying to see people who are forgotten, people everyone thinks are worthless –I’m referring to people on death row — who take up their cases and go back to class and study at primary and secondary school level and then go on to do law degrees. Seeing them changing their circumstances, getting themselves taken off death row, and then providing services to others, which they are not paid for, has been my inspiration.

Prison Student Advocates

To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change.