Alexander McLean is founder and director general of African Prisons Project, which provides high-quality legal advice, education and training to prison inmates and staff in Kenya and Uganda. The project aims to improve the justice systems of those two countries so that people who are accused of crimes are more likely to get a fair hearing. In doing so, it empowers the poor, the vulnerable and those who have made mistakes in the past so that they can make a positive difference in the future.
In this Q&A, McLean talks about the project’s work, the loneliness of leadership and what we can learn from those living in poverty.
Sally Percy: When and why did you start the African Prisons Project?
Alexander McLean: I first went into prisons in Uganda in 2004. I had taken a gap year to volunteer at a hospice there. Through the hospice, I ended up spending time looking after dying prisoners. I was deeply moved by my interactions with them, and I was reminded of our shared humanity because most of them were teenaged boys in prison for having underage sex, for which the maximum penalty in Uganda is death.
Percy: Do Kenya and Uganda still have the death penalty?
McLean: Both countries still have the death penalty and are still sentencing people to death. Until recently, both countries had the mandatory death penalty for murder and armed robbery. So if someone stole a mango from a neighbor’s mango tree, using a pen knife to cut it off, they had to be sentenced to death because they had stolen and had used a weapon to do it.
Both countries have now abolished the mandatory death penalty as a result of cases that our students have been involved with. In Uganda, the case that led to the abolition of the mandatory death penalty was called Susan Kigula and 417 Others v. Attorney General. Susan Kigula was our first woman to study law with the University of London, by correspondence from prison.
Percy: What challenges exist within the Kenyan and Ugandan legal systems?
McLean: Kenya and Uganda are commonwealth countries, with common law systems. Their legal systems were introduced by Britain when it was the colonial power, so they are tilted towards control. One of the chief differences between their legal systems and the U.K. legal system is that there is no jury system in either Uganda or Kenya. One magistrate or judge decides about innocence or guilt and has sentencing power.
These are also countries where the vast majority of people don’t have access to any legal support. In Kenya, there’s a right to Legal Aid for those charged with murder. In Uganda, the situation is similar. But in those cases, perhaps 80-90% of defendants don’t meet their lawyer before the trial and the amount that the government pays is so minimal that the lawyers who do such work aren’t really incentivized and often are very junior.
Also, the laws can be unusual. One can be in prison in Kenya for attempting suicide or for illegally collecting firewood to cook for children. In both Kenya and Uganda, we meet women without a husband or partner who were arrested for child neglect because they took a sick child to hospital and left their other children at home.
There are challenges at each stage of the process due to the lack of resources. Often, if you want the police to come and investigate a crime, you have to pay for their fuel or get them a taxi. Practical issues also stop the courts from functioning effectively – for example, a lack of interpreters in countries where very many different dialects are spoken, or the prison service not having a vehicle to take people to court, meaning that defendants have to walk for hours to get there.
Almost everyone who appears in court has no one to speak on their behalf and often won’t have even the most basic understanding of the law. So they might not understand that they are able to speak in court, or that they can even be standing up rather than having to kneel on the floor in front of the judge. Then there are challenges with prisons having far more prisoners than they are able to accommodate.
Percy: What does your project do and what is it aiming to achieve?
McLean: It’s about putting the power of the law into the hands of the poor. We recognize that in East Africa, but also in the U.K. and elsewhere, it tends to be our poorest people that we send to prison and who suffer at the hands at the state. Meanwhile, our wealthiest people become the ones who make, shape and implement the laws.
We enable those who experience difficulty at the hands of the government to acquire legal knowledge for themselves and make their voices heard by providing them with basic paralegal training or enrolling them on the correspondence law degree program run by the University of London. We have established Legal Aid clinics in prisons, and our paralegals – both prisoners and prison staff – study side by side. In 2018, we’ve had around 250 people each month released from prisons in Kenya and Uganda, either on bail, acquitted at trial or due to having their conviction overturned on appeal.
We’re also looking at what scope there is to change laws that seem to be unjust and exploring how those who have experienced conflict with the law can move into positions where they are involved in making, shaping and implementing laws. International development is not just something that needs to be done by mostly white people to mostly poor black people. There are incredibly bright, poor black people who can teach the rest of us something.
Percy: Do you have any examples of former students who are now working to change the system?
McLean: Our first University of London graduate in Uganda, Moses Ekwam, was convicted of a procurement-related offence in the Ugandan army and given a five-year sentence. Soon after he was convicted, he started studying law with the University of London, under African Prisons Project. He worked on his own appeal, got his conviction overturned and was released. The Ugandan army gave him study leave to complete his studies and now he works as a prosecutor in the Ugandan army. Moses knows what it means to be wrongly prosecuted and hopefully brings a degree of compassion, empathy and understanding from his own experience of conflict with the law to the choices that he is now making.
Percy: How does the African Prisons Project work with the governments in Kenya and Uganda?
McLean: We say this is fundamentally about governments creating just societies, so we want to be in the trenches with them. We want to be working with them to create a system where everyone plays a part in doing justice. We recognize that judges don’t want to feel that they can’t do justice in a case where they are hearing strongly from the prosecutor, but the defendant has no idea how to defend him or herself. And that it’s not easy to be a prison officer who knows that innocent people are in the prison, but does not know what to do about it.
Percy: Why do people who are imprisoned in Kenya and Uganda matter to the rest of us?
McLean: I’m a Christian and my faith says that beyond anything else, each life is inherently valuable and each of us has good and bad in us. Each of us has gifts and talents. Our world becomes rich when we don’t write people off for the mistakes they have made or the things they’re most ashamed of. Each of us is more than the thing we’re most ashamed of.
If you’re hearing the message that you don’t have anything to contribute, and you’re defined by the mistakes you’ve made, you can lose hope. And people without hope can become dangerous. So it is important to send the message to everyone, regardless of their circumstances, that we each have an opportunity to make a contribution.
Percy: In your Ashoka video, you describe your work as lonely. Why is that?
McLean: It’s lonely on a number of levels. Some people question whether my work is morally legitimate and ask whether giving legal knowledge to very poor people, some of whom have made serious mistakes, might somehow put the rest of society at risk. There’s a stigma that comes from working with people who have killed and raped and stolen and tortured. Saying that actually there’s more to them than being a murderer, thief, rapist or torturer can sometimes be a difficult thing for people to process.
Also, the idea that our most vulnerable people actually have tremendous potential doesn’t always resonate. So it feels like we are continuously trying to educate people about the value of our work. They wonder whether inmates are really capable of studying law and whether it is really possible for prisoners and prison officers to study side by side, support each other and learn from each other.
Percy: Who inspires you as a leader?
McLean: I’m massively inspired by the prisoners and prison officers we work with, but especially by the prisoners. They may be living in a cell that they share with eight other people. They may not have a bed. Or a proper toilet. They may not get to see their children more than once a year. But if they are still able to be kind, to offer hospitality and to study, even when it has to be by torchlight, what does this mean for me in terms of the courage I might have, or the compassion I can offer others? I’m also hugely inspired by one of our trustees, a woman called Dr. Anne Merriman. A doctor and former Benedictine nun, she has been working in Africa since 1960 and established Hospice Africa Uganda. She taught me about resilience and grit.
Percy: What does a good leader look like in your view?
McLean: It’s about having the courage of one’s convictions. In politics particularly, we see leaders get blown around with the wind, going in whichever direction that they think popular opinion will take them. But public opinion can change, so it’s important to understand your values and to stick to them – even if it comes at a personal cost. Being clear on one’s values and trying to lead at a pace that is slow enough to let them be the compass is very powerful. I’m trying to understand what it looks like to lead slowly. It’s definitely a challenge for me, and I’m not there yet.
Main Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sallypercy/2018/11/27/african-prisons-project-founder-our-world-becomes-rich-when-we-dont-write-people-off/