“Why were all the people I saw around me only those from poor families? Didn’t the rich commit crimes?”
James Osano was arrested in 2003 and after a 7 year trial period, he was sentenced to death. However, over the past 16 years James has not only completed his secondary school education, studied law - with the University of London via its International learning programme - and undergone paralegal training, but also written a book. In his book, ‘Tears of a Prisoner’ he speaks about his life in prison, the judicial system in Kenya, his recommendations on prison reforms and the impact that APP has had, not only in changing his life but the lives of many others within the prison community. He became a law student and paralegal as part of our Justice Changemaker programme.
Studying the Law in Prison
James is one of nine of our 2018 University of London Graduates having graduated with a second upper division in law from the University of London. Studying law in prison has been a big challenge. However, as a father of 3 children James states that achieving a law degree has equally motivated his children to work hard too. “It has been a good experience. It has enabled me to learn the law and how to assist others. Had I had this legal knowledge years back, I am confident that I would have done wonders in court. Before studying law, I was ignorant on many legal issues, right now, I am more aware of matters regarding the law.”
As an APP trained paralegal, he is encouraged by the positive reports that he receives from his clients at the legal aid clinic in Naivasha. “I get satisfaction from the fact that I am now able to help others, who like me, are in prison and cannot afford legal representation. Giving simple services like drafting legal documents and advising them prior to their court appearances for free has borne fruit. Some have been released. While others have had their sentences remitted.”
When he looks at his own court documents today, he is certain that the state lawyer given to him during his trial did not put much effort into representing him in court. But all hope is not lost. After a court ruling that declared the mandatory death sentence unconstitutional in Kenya, James has since returned to court for his re-sentencing. He hopes that this will eventually enable him to regain his freedom. Even though, he often worries about his life after release, knowing that a lot has changed over the past 16 years.
He writes, “Prison life has never been easy and it never shall. When the police arrive to arrest someone after a crime has been committed, one never imagines that he may end up spending most of the rest of his life in prison. Most people out there do not imagine that, behind the prison walls that they see while walking by, are thousands of men and women, desperately yearning and hoping for just a mere second chance. It is true, some have committed the crimes they were charged with, but still many others are innocent and yet they are convicts. It’s hard to tell who is who if you are a free man.”
Growing Up in Rural Kenya
As the youngest of 14 siblings, James was raised in a rural part of Kenya where access to education was difficult to find. He explains that in many areas, like the one where he was raised, people still don’t see the value in education. There is also limited access to external education and people are often unknowingly ignorant to the outside world. By the time he left school in class 7, James had lost both his parents.
The Power of Education
In 2007 James Osano was transferred to Naivasha Prison, which is known as the best penal institution in the country to pursue an education in prison. Since arriving at Naivasha, James completed his O Levels and was eventually taken onto the UoL programme. He has dreamt of being a lawyer for a long time, and is clearly very proud that he is now able to support his fellow inmates who previously had little to no legal advice or representation. As well as studying, he teaches biology, Swahili and English to his fellow students. He is also an avid reader of novels, historical, and African cultural literature.
James acknowledges the power of education to bring hope, especially in prison, “The education programme at Naivasha Maximum Prison and other prisons is amazing. For those who thought they had no future after their sentences, education has brought back the lost hope. Personally, I had not performed so well in school out there but APP gave me another chance. I choose to study Law with the University of London through APP’s sponsorship, I have finally gotten answers to some of those questions that used to trouble me.”
Prison life had stirred up a number of questions for James, “I used to ask myself many questions, which all seemed mysterious and hard to crack: Why were all the people I saw around me only those from poor families? Didn’t the rich commit crimes? Why don’t we have a well-structured parole system like in developed countries? What kind of trial can be termed as just and fair? What duration is this that is termed as reasonable time? Why are Kenyan prisons congested with petty offenders?”.
Celebrating Academic Success
APP’s Justice Changemaker programme empowers prisoners and prison staff by providing legal education and training. By gaining basic legal knowledge and skills they can become a practicing paralegal, sharing much needed legal advice and support to those around them, as well as qualifying to study the law via the University of London’s International learning programme.
On 31 October, APP will host a graduation ceremony in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Nairobi - where we hosted the first TEDx event held in an African prison - back in 2015 - and the first held in a maximum security prison anywhere in the world. This year, we will be celebrating the achievements of 16 APP students – including current and former inmates and prison staff. These students have successfully completed their Bachelor of Law undergraduate degree, just as Nelson Mandela did, studying law with the University of London from prison.
Become a Changemaker
Prison communities don’t have to be places of punishment and despair. They can become places of rehabilitation and hope. We see how powerful a legal education can be in the life of someone for whom imprisonment is their daily reality. Through our Changemaker programme, prison communities have become places where prisoner and prison staff study the law together and where prison inmates become legal advisors for one another. Where there is no other access to legal advice or representation this can dramatically change someone’s life. Sentences are shortened and some are released, reducing case backlog in the courts and overcrowding in the prisons, strengthening the justice system.
To join our work providing access to justice by empowering prison communities, find out more.
A Poem by James Osano Obuchi (Navasha Main Prison)
PSALMS FROM MY CELL
Pure, innocent and blameless
A child of love and tenderness
Fed, educated but worthless
For faith has approved to be merciless.
Oh four, a digit so cruel
Above and about, all seem so lowly
The walls of my abode, the morning gruel
Days going by, surely but slowly.
Cold justice, but justice, it’s you I seek
Mould, twist, but lo, for you I am sick
Waiting and hoping, a heart so meek
Hours, days, going by, week by week.
Guilty branded, it matters not
Rich, poor, all in the knot
Caught strong and secure, left to rot
Silent embers, burning within and hot
Forgot not, but remember and forgive
Forfeit for live, the command for life
Ah convict, heart yearning, who’ll give
Desperate and depressed, but ready and active.
Further above, the almighty who sees
Beyond and below, across the seas
My friend, my redeemer, now on my knees
My hopes restore, my dreams as always.