Justice Defenders has been working in prisons in East Africa for the past 15 years. Our expansion into The Gambia, exactly one year ago, marks a new chapter. We are committed to scaling our model, bringing justice to more defenceless communities in more countries.
Our Director of Growth Matteo Cassini provides a behind-the-scenes look into what it takes to launch an international justice programme in a new country, with new partners, during a pandemic.
An invitation to collaborate.
We’ve always found our community of lawyers, judges, prison authorities and academics to be a source of great possibilities. This was certainly the case for launching our work in The Gambia.
One of our allies Sir Robin Knowles CBE, a judge of the High Court of England and Wales, had been working with the Chief Justice of The Gambia. Together they were building judicial capacity at all levels. He was keen to explore the possibility of collaboration with Justice Defenders to decongest prisons and accelerate access to justice for people without legal representation.
The small country in West Africa has undergone a tremendous transformation following the ousting of ex-leader Yahya Jammeh in 2017 after 22-years in power. The Gambia was left with a dysfunctional justice system and overstretched infrastructure. But the progress that was beginning to take hold was positive, human-centred and aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
My first visit to The Gambia.
With the facilitation of the UK government-funded ROLE UK programme, together with Grace Karrass from the Judicial College of England and Wales, I travelled to The Gambia.
After visiting two prisons, I explored possibilities for collaboration with senior officials including the Director General of Prisons, the Ministry of the Interior, Chief Justice and Minster of Justice. By the end of my trip, I felt energised. There was a real hunger for justice in The Gambia, not only from incarcerated people, but from the most senior officials.
Although these meetings paved the way to secure a partnership with the government, there was a lot of work to be done on the practicalities of implementing our legal training programme. Luckily, I had the pleasure of meeting the remarkable leaders of The Gambia’s National Agency for Legal Aid.
The organisation had recently established legal aid desks in each of The Gambia’s three prisons, with the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme and in collaboration with the Gambia Bar Association. The desks provide pro bono legal services to detainees on remand, juveniles in detention and those accused of serious crimes. However, due to the scarcity of lawyers prepared to offer pro bono services, the potential of this commendable initiative could not be entirely fulfilled. We saw a real opportunity to work in solidarity with the local legal fraternity, and complement local efforts by building the legal capacity of the prison community itself.
It’s all in the planning.
Returning from The Gambia to the UK, I produced a report setting out the next steps to propel our expansion in to the country a reality. Crucially, to start working in The Gambia, we needed an invitation from The Gambian government.
Fuelled by the success of my initial meetings with the authorities, I started to plan a two-day workshop with all stakeholders to take place in The Gambia.
Securing government approval.
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, I held the workshop in The Gambia. Anyone working in the international development field knows how many workshops are held with great intentions, but that sadly often result in little progress. So it was unsurprising that at the beginning there was an air of hesitance in the room.
Sensing this, we set the tone early on: we were there to listen deeply and learn from those living and breathing justice in the country. The conversation was open and lively as attendees shared insights into how we could work hand in hand to reduce congestion in prisons, and secure access to justice for all. We learned about the challenges and strengths of their system.
By the end of the two days, everyone agreed that Justice Defenders’ approach could address these needs. The Gambian government recommended we start work in their country.
Shifting to digital delivery during the pandemic.
As Covid-19 spread across the world, our action plan was severely disrupted. But there was so much potential for a true shift in the way justice was administered in The Gambia, we couldn’t let up on the momentum.
We saw our teams in Kenya and Uganda work with urgency to provide internet access and laptops to our paralegals. Ensuring prisoners and prison officers could continue to access legal training. And people inside prisons were still able to attend their court sessions, via digital meetings.
Having witnessed the successful approach to digital justice, The Gambian Prison Service enabled us to make arrangements for internet access for Mile II prison, the prison we’d start our work in. This was the turning point; we knew we could make this expansion happen, despite the pandemic.
Setting a launch date.
We started our baseline survey. Over the course of three months, our first member of staff based in The Gambia Tim Bisong worked with local lawyers to hold interviews. 150 incarcerated people and 25 prison officers shared what was needed on the ground. This data helped us to shape the legal programme and select our first cohort of paralegals. Eight prisoners and 12 prison officers who met our criteria (which includes basic education and a commitment to our values) were enrolled.
Next, we had to decide a date for the launch and the start of the first three-week paralegal training programme. We settled on 17 May, just after Ramadan which is widely observed in The Gambia.
A date for celebration.
With Gambian leaders, international guests, and virtual attendees from across our community we celebrated the beginning of an incredible new path towards justice.
The event was opened by the Director General of Gambian Prisons Service Ansumana Manneh, who marked the day as a “groundbreaking moment in the history of our country’s justice system.”
While British High Commissioner David Belgrove OBE reiterated the UK’s commitment to justice across the world and said: “I’m so pleased to be part of this project with Justice Defenders. This programme will increase access to legal advice to those who are often in need of justice. I wish this project success.”
We knew the launch would be a momentous occasion, which would set the tone for our work in The Gambia. We timed the training of the first cohort of paralegals to start the next day to continue to ride the wave of excitement. This worked well as it aligned with paralegal training being conducted online in Kenya.
Personally, the most inspiring aspect about the training session is that my legal colleagues in Kenya contributed to the course. Meaning not only could my colleagues and our paralegals in Kenya share their knowledge and experiences, but many could relate to the trainees, having once before been sat in a prison office, learning the law for the first time.
Sheriff Jallow, one of our first paralegals trained in The Gambia shared after the international sessions: "It was very interesting; I had more experience from those people because they have been there before me. I have learnt a lot from their experience and the classes they taught us.
"It was very interesting and if you listen to their story, it motivates you more to do what you want to do."
Once the paralegals complete the three-week training, they staff the legal desks established in Mile II prison by the National Agency for Legal Aid and the Gambia Bar Association. They’ll provide free legal advice and information to defenceless clients under the supervision of the local legal fraternity.
Three months after our official launch in The Gambia, Tim Bisong provided a quick tour around the first legal office.
Reuniting with the team.
Earlier this year, I was able to travel with our Founder and CEO Alexander McLean to visit our colleagues and partners in The Gambia. The first time since the start of the pandemic. It was gratifying to be back, working face to face, after two years.
We were invited to the official opening ceremony for the legal fraternity, to mark the start of the 2022 legal year. It was exciting to see so many committing themselves to justice.
We’ve made a lot of progress, but during our trip we witnessed a need for us to work even harder. We visited the remand wing which is extremely cramped. The overcrowded conditions were difficult to witness. But I found hope in seeing leaders of The Gambia committing to easing overcrowding.
We were honoured to speak with the Chief Justice and other members of the judiciary about our progress. They have been promoting our work in the country, and together we are pushing forward towards access to justice for all.
Success and looking to the future.
Up until we started working almost 60 per cent of people in prison in The Gambia were on remand, awaiting their trial. For the first time, in March 2022 the remandee population has reduced to less than the convicted population. Dropping by 23 per cent since the beginning of 2022. The overall prison population has remained the same. Potentially meaning more people could be having their case heard and accessing justice.
We believe in ambitious goals. By 2024, we want to see the population of detainees decreasing to permanently meet the remand wing capacity. And for every person awaiting trial to have their day in court within the legal time limit, with adequate representation. I know we can make this happen. We've already expanded our work in The Gambia, we now have legal offices in all of the country's three prisons.
Today, we work within 32 prison communities across Africa. In the future? Our model is scalable to sex workers in Thailand, street children in Brazil, migrant and refugee communities across Europe, or immigrant construction workers in the Middle East. We want to take legal knowledge and services to these margins of society. And ensure that 1,000,000 defenceless people in conflict with the law get a fair hearing by 2030.
We’re building momentum as others join us, helping us to expand our disruptive, transformative model. Challenging the unjust status quo and reforming justice institutions from the ground up.
I can’t wait to have others join our movement.
Director of Growth