Article The Future

Unlocking potential – inmates study their way out of African prisons

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails”, Nelson Mandela famously said. Alexander Mclean was eighteen years old when he first stepped inside a maximum security prison in Uganda. The British teenager was volunteering in a hospice and had seen patients in prison wards die in barbaric circumstances. What started as a gap year between high school and university soon became Alexander’s life mission.

Caption: Student and inmate Susan and the Officer in Charge of Uganda’s Luzira Women’s prison during her graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of APP

The prison was built in the 1920s by British colonial rulers to house 600 inmates, but had 3,500 people crammed inside. Convicts on death row included a man who had stolen a mango with a pen knife and was convicted of armed robbery. Another prisoner was on death row for killing a man, who after twelve years turned out to be still alive. Many teenage boys were in prison for having underage sex which had a maximum penalty of death. Two thirds of prisoners had had no trial and had not been convicted of a crime. Almost 90 percent of African prisoners never meet a lawyer.

Upon his return to the UK, Alexander Mclean raised funds from friends and family to help improve health facilities and set up legal education programmes in Ugandan prisons. He was often asked the question: “why should we invest money in prisoners?” Determined to convince people of the fact that every human deserves dignity and a fair trial, he set up the African Prisons Project (APP) in 2007. The study programmes soon proved to be transformational in more ways than one. Mclean says it was a mixture of his ‘youthful naivety and stubbornness’ that got things off the ground. “I did not know what it would involve, but I knew there were many bright people in prison. And I did not see any reason why they would not perform well.”

Eight years on, his organisation has twenty local staff and has worked with over 25,000 inmates in three countries. Mclean is now rolling out work in Kenya, exploring a partnership with the South Sudan Prison Service, and has received requests to partner with ten additional countries. Crucially, APP teamed up with the University of London, where Nelson Mandela himself studied from prison by correspondence. Last summer, the first three students graduated in prison with a Diploma in Common Law. With bursary and practical support from APP, thirty prisoners in Kenya and Uganda enrolled in the course.

“I would go out to the toilet to read, because that light was never switched off”

William* is one of them. In 2007, he was wrongly convicted under Uganda’s Military Law and sentenced to five years in prison. Ironically, he won his appeal just a month before he was due to be released. Through APP, he spent time in prison studying: first for his A-levels and later for a law diploma. The conditions were challenging, but with materials sent from the University of London’s Distance Learning Programme, he found ways to write his course work by hand. “I would sit in the toilet at night”, he remembers. “By 10pm all lights had to be turned off as part of the prison regulations. I would move and go out to the toilet to read, because that light was never switched off.”

William’s family fought for his freedom from the outside. They assisted him in his appeal process and supported his studies where they could. While William and his fellow inmates tried to keep up hope, they knew their loved ones were struggling too. “It was hard for my family”, he recalls via a Skype connection from Uganda. “They did not know if I would come out and if I would be able to make a living again. I was dismissed from my previous job after I got convicted. My parents looked after my wife and our children while I was in prison. The kids were still small and they missed their father. When I got out, they were all so grown up.”

Although justice came late for William, he refuses to feel bitterness about his experience. Instead, he believes that his skills will help him to contribute to a greater goal. “At the time of my arrest, I did not have legal knowledge at all,” he recalls. “You see yourself being charged and just go with what they tell you. But I have learnt a lot since then. Education has allowed me to understand the court processes, analyse the case information and spot errors and misjudgments. Without prison, I would never have been able to gain these qualifications. I am seeing good things coming out of it. I want to help others, who are facing despair or injustices. When I graduate next year, I hope to use my skills as a prosecutor or legal adviser. There are many military courts that require experts like me.”

Skills gap

The lack of legal expertise in courtrooms around Uganda and other African nations leads to errors as well as backlogs in cases. International human right groups estimate that more than half of those in jail in Uganda have not yet been convicted of any crime. In July 2011, the prison population was 31,683, with 54.4 percent being pre-trial detainees.

It is this skills gap that needs to be tackled in order to improve the system at large, says Alexander Maclean, who was recently awarded the prestigious global Ashoka Fellowship for social entrepreneurs. From his base in London, he tries to drum up support for the African Prisons Project. Rather than finding high profile lawyers to handle individual cases, his mission is to cultivate talent locally, both within the prison population and staff.

“For us, the greater impact comes from people with first-hand experience of the law, who come from the poorest parts of society”, he explains. “These are the people with roots which are least likely to produce lawyers and most likely to produce prisoners. They get legal training, both academic and practical. The scope they then have to deal with thousands of cases over the course of their life time can bring much longer-term impact.”

Mclean says he is often asked about global advocacy work, but his experience has taught him that international laws alone do not change things on the ground. “Advocacy is about people who have lived it first-hand, who are advocating for change based on their own experience, rather than someone coming in saying: “under international convention XYZ, prisoners ought to be A, B and C. And they can say: ‘bugger off. Who are you and what do you know about our situation?’”

He mentions the example of Paddy, who was on death row in Uganda for about ten years. “He who wrote his own appeal, went to court in Easter 2013, got his death sentence overturned and was immediately released. He continued with his legal studies and wants to stand to be an MP at Uganda’s next election. If he becomes an MP, he will be influencing the way that laws are made and implemented in Uganda. He can make a much longer term impact than even the best lawyer flying in from any country elsewhere.”

In their first year of studies, they have written successful appeals for over fifty of their fellow inmates and had convictions overturned.


Early success in other countries shows the method works in other jurisdictions too. In Kenya, APP selected eight undergraduate law students in the maximum security prison, who started their studies in September 2013. In their first year of studies, they have written successful appeals for over fifty of their fellow inmates and had convictions overturned. “In environments where there is a huge lack of legal understanding, legal education is very powerful from the outset”, says Mclean. “When you are dealing with countries where 80 to 90 percent of the prisoners don’t have lawyers, it applies immediately to them and their peers. So although they are only beginning their studies, they are already applying their knowledge.”

APP now receive invitations from prisoners as well as prison governors all around Africa. Mclean: “I am sure that prison staff and judges do not want people who are innocent to be in prison. But the systems have so many shortcomings that this ends up being the case. Prison services often get publicity when things are going wrong. We help prisons to get publicity for things that are going right. We show that prisons are changing lives.”

Under-ambitious projects frustrate Alexander Mclean, who admits to being a bit of an over-achiever. He is most passionate when he talks about what drives him to work with prisoners. “Some say: ‘Let’s keep them in their place, they can have a basic education’. But if you really want to change people’s lives, then tertiary education is fundamental. An investment made in education is one that can never be taken away. The least educated are the most likely to end up in prison. If we invest intensely in education, this seems to me the most powerful way to break the cycle.”

Mclean says he also believes passionately in social mobility for ex-prisoners: “Just because you have been in prison does not mean that for the rest of your life you have to stay down. You have been given a sentence and once you served it you should have the same opportunities as anyone else, rather than having your whole life defined by a mistake you made.”

Mclean’s extraordinary work has not gone unnoticed. Last year, he was named one of Time Magazine’s ’30 under 30’ and he has received high flying job offers from human rights organisations and legal institutions. But he feels that his work with the African Prisons Project is not over yet. “I would like to establish a dedicated prison college to help prisoners all over the world to study on a tertiary level. There are bright people in prisons everywhere and they are not catered for. The partnership with the University of London has shown just how much potential there is.”

  • (William is not his real name.)

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