Morris Kaberia is just one example of many. The former police officer was imprisoned in Kenya for violent robbery—despite his protests that he had been framed. There, he heard about the African Prisons Project. It is turning even illiterate prisoners into their own legal advocates in countries where legal assistance is rare.
In September, Kaberia was released after representing himself in court. The 47-year-old is now pursuing a law degree from the University of London.
“Joining the program…gave me my life back,” he says. He began to hope again about what his life could hold if he were free again. As of October, 800 prisoners have been freed in 2018, says project spokeswoman Peggy Nyahera.
The project was founded in 2007 by then-British law student Alexander McLean. He was volunteering in Uganda when he witnessed the condition of many African inmates. They were poor, unable to read, and had no resources to hire an attorney on their own behalf.
Unlike the justice systems of the United States and Great Britain, Uganda and Kenya do not provide “assigned counsel” for citizens accused of crime. Assigned counsel is a policy by which even a poor person is guaranteed that a lawyer will be assigned to defend him or her. It is intended to prevent unjust treatment of the poor. No one must stand trial without an advocate in those countries.
Without access to assigned counsel, though, Ugandans, Kenyans, and some other African citizens must take their defense into their own hands. And the skills they pick up from the project course prepare them even better for life outside of prison, if they do gain their freedom.
Under the project, inmates learn basic reading skills first. Next, they are encouraged to study law. Project staffers participate with the inmates in mock court situations with law students acting as judges.
The experience is not only transforming inmates. It is changing how others treat them. Hamisi Mzari is a legal aid officer with the project. He works with inmates at Kenya’s Kamiti Maximum Prison. He says that prisoners lost much of their human dignity in the eyes of the community before the program. “People are now seeing that the people whom we took into prison—whom we had considered that they are the litter and the garbage of society—they are now coming out as polished gold.”
Christians understand full well the need for an advocate. We can never defend ourselves against the sin nature we inherited and the sins we have committed in serving ourselves over God and others. But the good news of the gospel is that God provided a perfect advocate for us—one who gave us His own righteousness in place of our guilt. See 1 John 2:1-2.
God also cares about justice. The project hopes to put former prisoners into positions where they can work to revise unjust laws.
(Law student and social welfare officer Mose Kodhek, center, sits with a prisoner at Naivasha Prison in Kenya. The prisoner is learning about the law in the African Prisons Project. AP Photo)