Justice cannot be something that is dependent on your income, gender, or the colour of your skin.
The cost is too great for people who are imprisoned without a fair hearing, wrongly sentenced due to a poorly prepared case, or simply forgotten about behind bars.
Who better to change a system than those who have been affected by it most?
Meet Phionah. She is part of our unlikely community. Serving clients alongside fellow paralegals, both incarcerated women and prison officers. As we serve together, we call out the potential in each other to act bravely, take risks, and move forward to a preferred future. One where justice is accessible, reliable, and can be practiced best by those who need it most.
Watch Phionah’s video and read her story below.
“It was a blessing in disguise.”
Phionah always dreamed of becoming a lawyer but when she applied to study law at Makerere University in Uganda, she didn’t pass the pre-entry exam.
She never would have thought that being sentenced to five years in prison at 22 would bring an opportunity of a lifetime. One of the most difficult times in her life unlocked her potential to work in a team and serve her community.
All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. Some are more vulnerable than others, more at risk of poverty. Others are on the margins through unemployment, prejudice, or a crisis of circumstances. In sub-Saharan Africa lack of legal awareness disproportionately impacts women, who have lower literacy and educational levels compared to men1.
But each of us has much more to offer than the worst mistake we’ve made.
“I had this broken dream because I wanted to be a lawyer, even when I was a child. So getting a second chance in prison was a very good opportunity," Phionah explains.
“Before my incarceration, I was staying with my parents. I used to enjoy going out, I loved swimming… But being the first born, I felt like I was never a good example to my siblings. And life was never easy.
“Entering prison for the first time was very challenging. I felt beaten. I felt like I had betrayed the entire family. I felt very hopeless. I felt like I could never be of help to others but I realised I could.
“It was a blessing in disguise, actually. There is a story that inspires me in the Bible, the story of Joseph. God had to take him to prison to become something. So I really needed this to become something.”
“I have offered legal advice to every client that came up to me.”
“The moment you end up committing a crime, society will always label you according to your past testimony. So I always looked forward to this opportunity whereby I would prove society wrong,” Phionah explains.
“I enrolled as a University of London student in 2019. And I was also a paralegal working with Justice Defenders. So that came with a lot of responsibility.”
Luzira Women’s Prison is built to hold 300 people. As of February 2023, 650 women and 47 children were held. Most don’t have a state-appointed lawyer and cannot afford to pay for their own.
We equip justice defenders like Phionah with the law. Working at our legal offices, our paralegals provide free, quality legal services to all. Helping to not only ensure a fair hearing, but reduce congestion in overflowing prisons.
Phionah and her fellow paralegals have been particularly focused on supporting women who have been imprisoned for petty offences. Pushing for community service instead of incarceration.
“You wake up to a client, they wake you up in bed.”
“I have had a busy schedule. So I've learned to work hard. You always have something on your mind. You're always expecting something: ‘Phionah this, Phionah that, Phionah!’”
For many of our clients, life hangs in the balance. For women who have long been ignored or discriminated against, having a female – who not only understands your case, but what it feels to be in this situation – fighting alongside you, brings the power of hope.
As Oscar Romero said:
“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
A typical day’s work for Phionah included helping clients trace guarantors who would assure the judge that when they are released on bail, they will continue to appear in court. She also regularly drafted legal documents such as notices of appeal and affidavits. To ensure everyone in Luzira Women’s Prison, including newly incarcerated women, knew they could visit the legal office, Phionah also conducted regular mass legal awareness sessions.
In 2022, we trained 52 new paralegals in Uganda. Bringing the total number of paralegals working across the countries’ prisons to 94. Last year alone, Phionah and her fellow paralegals served more than 27,000 clients, and helped ensure the release of 2,067 people.
“Seeing women smile as they leave hugging you, telling you: ‘thank you for your services’, it brought me happiness and that's what kept me going.”
One woman Phionah supported was Diana. Who spent two years and five months in prison after being sentenced to 23 years for a crime she didn’t commit. Phionah, alongside paralegal prison officer Ronnie, helped Diana secure the security footage that proved she was not at the scene of the crime. Thanks to Phionah and Ronnie’s work to appeal the sentence and the conviction, Diana was acquitted. In 2021, after spending two years and five months in prison, she was released.
“I have learned humility.”
At Justice Defenders we find value in serving others and showing mercy. We’re people who’ve fallen from the law and been captured by grace. Given our histories, we know that without grace, we are nothing. For Phionah, prison built her character and taught her more than she imagined.
“I have learned a lot - I have learned humility. That is a virtue I think I would never have gotten from outside of prison,” Phionah explains. “I have learned to be humble with people. That was not me before. I've learned how to treat people with respect. I've learned to be patient. I have learned to make money the better way. I've learned to work hard.”
“I am changed. I am transformed.”
On the day of her release, Phionah reflected on her journey, the impact she has had and how that’s changed the course of her life. “I’ve managed to empower very many people. [It’s] one of those things that made me validate myself. Yes! To know that I can do it, I can become better, I can go somewhere even after all this.
“I am changed. I am transformed. And Justice Defenders gave me that opportunity.”
“I know the sky’s the limit.”
Now reunited with her family with a law degree in hand, Phionah is ready to commit to her dream career. With hopes to start a family and undertake a course at the Law Development Centre (LDC) to become an accredited lawyer, the future looks bright.
“I hope to get married. I hope to give birth to five children,” Phionah says with a smile. “I hope to give back to society. I've been given freely, I ought to give back to society. I am looking towards helping Justice Defenders achieve its vision. And I am also looking towards attaining a bar course, going to LDC. I will probably up working into litigation.”
“I feel like having related with prisoners, I really have a lot I can offer and I know the sky's the limit.”
This year, Justice Defenders is working to partner with the LDC to offer our students accredited courses that will enable them to practice law in Uganda. In Kenya, we are also partnering with Strathmore University to offer similar accreditation. Learn more about our model.