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What's the impact of a university degree, if you still have many years left in prison?

3.8.2021

What's the impact of a university degree, if you still have many years left in prison?
Gibson Makini (right) with Stanslous Musembi.

The value of education is indisputable. Having a university degree can secure higher-paying employment. But the benefits extend beyond money. Higher levels of education are also associated with better health and wellbeing, greater political interest, and increased agency and recognition within society.

So how do these benefits translate for people who gain degrees while in prison? 

We caught up with four paralegals at Luzira Women’s Prison and Mbarara Central Prison in Uganda, and Naivasha Maximum Prison in Kenya to find out.

Betty Florence in Uganda and Gibson Makini in Kenya are both currently studying the University of London law degree course. While Sowedi Sserinya in Uganda and Joseph Lodiaka in Kenya have graduated. All four work as paralegals and have recently been promoted to an elevated ‘special stage' trusteeship status. This recognises their good behaviour, discipline, and the positive impact they’ve had on their peers. 

“One must be exemplary, and you must have served at least three years since incarceration.” Gibson explains.

As highly respected and trusted members of the prison community, Gibson, Betty, Sowedi and Joseph now have extra privileges. They are able to represent the community at events and work closely with prison officers to promote harmony within the prison. Perhaps the biggest impact, not only for themselves but the wider community, is that they are now able to move between different parts of the prison without being accompanied. This makes it easier for them to get to and from the legal office. Which makes providing free legal services to fellow prisoners simpler. 

Joseph works in the legal office in Naivasha Maximum Prison, Kenya.

However these new responsibilities come with new challenges. “When you are promoted to this stage, you have to show that you deserve it discipline-wise. The way you carry out certain tasks…you feel honoured and respected,” Joseph explains. “I feel happy.”

Betty also feels the added responsibility. Her dedication to working as a paralegal and studying the degree has meant she’s been promoted to ward leader. Commonly known as a ‘katikiro’. 

“I now have to navigate my leadership responsibilities alongside studying. It’s quite challenging because when a ward is assigned to execute a task, I have to be around to supervise it to ensure everybody performs the work.” Betty explains.

“Being a ward leader has impacted me positively to a larger extent…[It] has offered me the opportunity to conduct [legal] awareness sessions from within and outside the wards. I can provide legal advice to my peers with ease since I’m very close to them as their leader.

“My skills in speech have improved, I have made friends, and I have gained respect from my peers.

“Most importantly, my status is shaping me and preparing me for a bigger position in the future when I’m finally released. This is because in prison, I lead a huge number of people with different religions, age, status and from different locations. Managing them well prepares me for a bigger dream, for my law career.”

Betty at Luzira Women’s Prison.

For Sowedi, who graduated in 2020, the recognition has helped him to extend legal services to a new prison. After being transferred to a different prison in Uganda, Sowedi has used his degree and experience as a paralegal to continue to support fellow prisoners informally. 

He told us: “My transfer is because my time in prison is now close to an end. I’m only left with three years. My transfer here has created an impact –  I’m able to continue with the work of Justice Defenders, even though they don’t operate here. I believe I’m an ambassador for Justice Defenders.”

Our paralegals are proving the value of studying a degree from behind prison bars. Their determination and grit is enabling them to not only support fellow prisoners, but to gain valuable leadership skills for life outside of prison.  

Read our blog: Celebrating Black academic excellence.