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TFN member Annie's visit to African Prisons Project

In December 2017 one of our wonderful members, Annie Blaber, went to Uganda to visit a couple of prisons where African Prisons Project (APP) is working. We've had APP pitch at events at Young Funding Network, TFN London and Strategic Funding Group between 2008 and 2016, so naturally we were keen to have Annie tell us about her trip:

"In 2004 18 year old Alexander McLean set up APP to bring justice to prisoners in Uganda and Kenya.  Few prisoners can afford a lawyer, and thousands languish unjustly incarcerated for years. 

Now APP works in 27 prisons, training prisoners and prison officers to become advocates of human rights and to educate and represent their peers, enabling  the most vulnerable to access justice through basic legal advice and support. Through these advocates some 3000 prisoners have been released. 
Today 65 prisoners and prison staff are studying for law degrees through the University of London.  In December, with APP Board member Aisha Kaweesi, I visited two prisons in Uganda to meet some of these men and women. 
Entering the women’s prison in Kampala there was no sign of security once we were through the outer gate.  Astonishingly, we emerged into a beautiful park: low neatly clipped hedges, flowering shrubs, exotic trees, with views over open country and distant hills. Beneath the trees, sheltering from the fierce sun, sat 450 women in glowing yellow dresses. Dotted about were women in burnt orange. Half a dozen in pink checks are on death row.  Sitting on their mothers’ laps or tottering between the women were toddlers, and here and there a small baby. They can keep them only until they are two.

Pop music blared from speakers, the prison doctor harangued them with a mighty voice:  ‘AIDS is not a stigma - you no longer have to die’. The prison was celebrating World Aids Day.

We met three of the women studying for a University of London law degree, one a member of the prison staff. Betty, a woman in her 30s and a second year student, had just had a baby. She had been condemned to death. Now 16 years later, through her law studies and the support of her peers, she is about to be released.  

The men’s maximum security prison was another matter. Surrounded by towering walls and watch towers, visitors go through three rigorous checks and searches, surrounded by guns, relieved of all possessions. 

We entered a vast yard, hundreds of men again in bright yellow were gathered for the Christmas carol service, and as we entered a hot, dark, empty room the men burst into song.

Eight prisoners and a prison officer wandered in, all studying for law degrees.  We sat in a tight circle, intensely hot and very hard to hear above the singing.

The men began to speak, a strong sense of respect and comradeship between them. One man who had been a child soldier told us he couldn't cope and had dropped out. But the others had encouraged and supported him and he had returned to the programme. Now, he said, he had hope, fighting for his release. Another man had completed his degree and was starting an MA.  The only prison officer among them, clearly a valued member of this close-knit group, had been inspired to join the programme after experiencing the brutality of a fellow prison officer. 

While focussed on commuting their sentences and gaining their freedom, the men were passionate about helping fellow prisoners: writing appeals, advising what to expect in court, how to behave and present their cases. A thin intellectual looking man in rimless glasses said he had been a hardened criminal, all his life on the run. Prison had allowed him to stop running and reflect. APP had given him a direction. Now he would devote his life to bringing justice to the most vulnerable. His anxiety was that the letters and appeals he wrote wouldn’t get past prejudiced and incompetent lawyers. These men shared a passionate sense of purpose.

For three years the degree students have classes 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.  A British lawyer had recently spent some weeks with them, honing their stories and appeals, staging mock trials, giving the prisoners the tools and confidence to fight their own cases and help fellow inmates.

APP, increasingly supported by senior members of the Ugandan and Kenyan judiciary, are beginning to change the culture in African prisons, and are currently in the process of establishing the world’s first prison-based law college. “We want to see people getting out of prison, becoming lawyers and judges, politicians, legal academics and business leaders, going from the margins of society to the centre of it.” Alexander McLean, CEO and Founder."

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