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The law: Enforcing it, breaking it, studying it. One man's journey


The law: Enforcing it, breaking it, studying it. One man's journey

“Before incarceration, I was in the police service. I thought I knew the law but little did I know, I knew nothing."

One year after his release, Gilbert sits in the Justice Defenders’ Nairobi office, not only as a free man but as a member of staff.

As part of our work to ensure everyone has access to justice, we facilitate law degrees for people in prisons. Gilbert is a student that shines. Now employed and reintegrated into society, he proves the value of education. 

Gilbert working at Justice Defenders' office in Nairobi.

From one side of the law, to the other.

Seated at his desk, sifting through monthly reports from Nairobi Remand, Gilbert’s career started at the other end of the justice spectrum. When he used to work as a police officer, Gilbert would take people to prison with little thought about fair trials or sentencing. Until he found himself in conflict with the law he once administered. 

Thinking back to his 11 years in prison, Gilbert remembers: “My greatest fear after my conviction was a wasted life. There are things in life that matter a lot, one being your freedom. However much life may be hard on you; you are the only one who can choose to shape your destiny.”

Gilbert did just that. In May 2019 he began studying his University of London law degree from Kamiti Maximum Prison.

Since sitting his first exam in October the same year, he has never looked back. 

“I now know why they call themselves ‘learned friends’. Law is not just for lawyers, the rich, or in the courtroom. It affects all aspects of society. As a law student, you get the privilege to study vast, vast subjects touching on all aspects of life.”

Serving others.

While in prison Gilbert also trained to be a paralegal, so that he could provide legal services to his peers. 

“Our criminal justice system – being adversarial in nature – is unfair for the accused person, who is illiterate and not represented by an advocate, yet arguing a case with the learned counsel on the prosecution side.” Gilbert explains.

He remembers one person who he supported. “While incarcerated, I met an old man – 52 years of age. We came from the same location back at home. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment. I worked on his appeal which was successful.

“After my release, I visited my rural home and I had the privilege to meet him again with his family. It moved me – how he had spoken well of the work Justice Defenders did for him. I realised I had become a hero to him and his family.

“You feel you are working for a noble cause when you see a client, who was once discouraged, get released and is smiling again.”

Graduate Meshack Otieno is a fellow Legal Education Programme Trainee and tutor. He explains how the programme’s structure encourages graduates to give back. “It is my expectation that they will practice what they have learned by offering free legal services to our clients in prisons. This remains the core mandate for all of the beneficiaries of this programme.”

Graduation on the horizon.

Since his release in December 2020, Gilbert has continued his studies online while working for Justice Defenders. Now in his final year, Gilbert is eager to reach the finish line. Cap and gown included. 

“By next year, I will have completed my LLB,” he explains. “It will be my greatest achievement in life. Attaining an LLB from one of the most prestigious universities in the world is something I am proud of.”

Gilbert is among 11 students who are set to graduate in 2022. So far 39 prisoners and prison officers have graduated from the University of London with a law degree. Armed with the tenets of the law, they have a better understanding of the criminal justice system. Enabling them to provide free legal services for others. And ultimately help ensure everyone has access to a fair hearing. 

Learn more about the impact of the law degree for people within prison.