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Interview: Alexander McLean, founder, African Prisons Project

27 July 2018

‘As a magistrate, I was mistaken for a prisoner and locked up for some time’

Andrew Philip/Tearfund

A prisoner shows Mr McLean beadwork, in Luzira prison, Kampala, Uganda, in 2010

A prisoner shows Mr McLean beadwork, in Luzira prison, Kampala, Uganda, in 2010

When I was 16, I volunteered to work in a hospice in London. I then went to work for three months at Mulago, Uganda’s national referral hospital, where I took care of people dying of HIV and AIDS and TB, abandoned by their families.

There were prisoners there, many of them were written off by their communities as being worthless. But I got great joy in being side by side with them. Feeding, washing, and caring for people between life and death taught me a huge amount.

I met sick prisoners, usually teenage boys like me, in prison for having under-age sex, for which they could get life imprisonment or worse; so I visited their prison, Uganda’s main maximum-security prison. I ended up refurbishing its hospital in my gap year — and I saw the death rate there drop massively.

Few NGOs were working in prisons; so I started African Prisons Project [APP] as a student society in my second year at Nottingham, to bring dignity and hope to men, women, and children in prison.

I also became a magistrate in Nottingham, then. As a magistrate, you visit the prison you’ll send people to; but when I did, I was mistaken for a prisoner, and locked up for some time. I hope that’s given me a degree of empathy with the people I see, and most people in court are teenagers or young adults. I want to be slow to judge, quick to love. I fail, but I’m trying.

The population has grown massively in the past few decades in countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and around sub-Saharan Africa. When Uganda gained independence, the population was around four million; now, it’s around 40 million. There’s also been huge growth in prison entry, and capacity simply hasn’t kept up; so prisons are massively overcrowded, which means that prisoners often are badly fed, and they can’t always lie down to sleep at night. Most prisoners will never meet a lawyer; so people are in prison for long periods — even for minor offences — who wouldn’t be there if they had good legal services.

People on remand for minor offences needn’t be routinely imprisoned, and we know prisoners with quality legal representation will often be acquitted, or, if convicted, they’ll receive a lower sentence; so the African Prisons Project trains prisoners and prison staff in law. About 3000 people have been released from prisons in Uganda and Kenya as a result. We want that figure to be 30,000 by 2020.

We think that it’s important to showcase what’s going right in prisons. Prison services’ problems are often in the news, but actually it takes guts, courage, and resilience to be a prison officer, and we want to celebrate the ones who are doing great things. We work with leaders with vision for change, and help them to mobilise resources and support.

Everywhere, prison staff are under-appreciated and underpaid, but they are fundamental to making prisons places of positive transformation; so we work very closely with them at all levels. Ultimately, they’re the ones who change prisons.

The APP also celebrates prisons as places where lives can be transformed. We want to share good practice from East Africa with the rest of the world, because things are happening in prisons in Kenya and Uganda that we know the UK and the United States could learn from.

While our income grew, and we won awards and media coverage for our work around health and basic education, actually, most of the people we are serving wouldn’t be in prison if they had quality legal services. So, we’re making the shift from a prison-welfare NGO to a prison-based legal college and law firm. We train prisoners and prison staff as paralegals, and put them through University of London law degrees. We give them high-quality, practical, legal-skills training so that they can go and join our law firm, where they’ll work with experienced lawyers to provide the highest-quality legal services to people who can’t afford to pay for lawyers.

The head of Kenya’s maximum-security prison, in Kamiti, told me earlier this year that 120 of their prisoners were released last year by courts on appeal. Two-thirds had APP students work on their appeals. “Your guys are much more effective at getting people out of my prison than qualified, paid lawyers. What we need to see happen now would be your students completing their law degrees as they study for the bar.” Maybe they will be called to the bar while in prison. Top London law firms are helping us, recognising that people who have been held for years without trial, tortured, often studying by torchlight, have much to teach them.

This governor cares for his prisoners like his own children, and there’s generally a culture of aspiration in East African prisons that we don’t see in Britain. Although 80 per cent of prisoners are illiterate, most of them take classes, teaching each other, because many of them have very bright minds.

We want to roll this model out elsewhere, recognising that, globally, it tends to be the poor who go to prison, wealthier people who become lawyers, and that those who’ve got first-hand experience of conflict with the law are well placed to spend their lives using the law to serve the poor.

A really proud moment recently was being at the TED Global Conference in Tanzania with Pete Ouko. I first met Pete 12 years ago, on death row in Kamiti, Nairobi. Pete took me under his wing, and guided me and my friends as to how to bring change in a very complex and challenging environment. He became our first University of London law graduate in Kenya in 2014.

A Chinese labourer was bitten by the foreman’s dog. He asked the foreman to pay for his medical treatment, but the foreman refused and fired him. He couldn’t afford a lawyer, but remembered Pete; so he said to the warden on the gate at Kamiti: “You have a lawyer inside. I want to see him.” Pete, who by then had had his death sentence commuted to life, sued this chap’s former employer from prison and won, achieving a payment of about 1 million Kenyan shillings. To go to prison to access justice is exciting and unique.

I’m also particularly proud of Susan Kigula, our first female student in Uganda. She got the death penalty when she was 21 — though she denied murder — but became one of the University of London’s best students in human-rights law. She established a legal-aid clinic in her prison, and led a case with 416 others, which resulted in the mandatory death sentence for murder and armed robbery being abolished, and Susan and hundreds of others being released from death row.

Uganda has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, and there are many women convicted of murder. Whether or not Susan was innocent, the point is that some of us have killed, raped, tortured, and some of us have done nothing wrong, but we can all serve others, and we don’t just want to serve the innocent. Even the guilty should be protected by the law, even if they are punished by the law for an offence they have committed.

I bulldozed my way into prisons as a naïve 18-year-old. I’ve learnt now that prisons are complex communities. Don’t underestimate prisoners and the low-ranking prison staff. They have experience, gifts, and resilience — prisons are hard places, and to survive requires creativity and perseverance.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that prisoners are dependent (“What they need is us to give them stuff”). What we all need is to be given a chance to use our God-given gifts and talents. Even if we’ve killed, raped, or tortured others, there is much more to us than that. We all need to be given a chance to have a future that is different from our past, and contribute to our families, communities, and nations.

People such as Mandela and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who spent time in detention, inspired me. Jesus was given the death penalty, and so many of the founders of the Church were executed or imprisoned.

My father came from Kingston in the ’50s in search of a better life; so I grew up in south London, not far from where I live now. I enjoyed public speaking as a little boy, and wanted to become a barrister. I experienced a great outpouring of love from my maternal grandmother, who died when I was 19. Her devotion and belief in me makes me want to give others the knowledge that someone believes in them. She called me every day when I was in Africa on my gap year, and my dad came out when I got malaria. He and my mum came out to help me with the refurbishing, too.

I married Hannah, a psychiatrist, and we have a little girl and a baby boy — whose first Easter was spent on death row in Uganda. Hannah helps my strategic thinking, and gives me that same unconditional love. I’m often travelling, because I bridge the remarkable communities in prison and those who can provide financial and other kinds of support. But we love hosting friends and colleagues, and we oversee several church groups, and run a lectio divina — something we do in prison as well.

If I was locked in a church, I’d definitely want to be with my grandma. It would be great to pray together, to understand her faith and how it sustained her through losing her son in the Second World War. The work I do is my calling, but she prepared me for it in her very quiet way.

Alexander McLean was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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