For those on the margins of society - both inside and outside of prison - education enables students to forge a new life.
From the 1700s, people in prison in Europe were given bibles as a tool for reflection. Since, education in prisons has expanded with vocational training and specialised education in many countries across the world. But high prison populations and limited budgets often serve as a bottleneck to the delivery of such enriching programmes.
According to a survey conducted by Uganda Human Rights Commission in 2015, 85% of the prisoners in all of the 225 government prisons lacked basic education; with 80% of those in prison being school dropouts.
Unfortunately, the situation isn’t much different in Kenya. Lack of education and job opportunities lead to a high level of crime, contributing to its high prison population.
Justice Defenders’ University of London law degree programme is trailblazing. Our two Education Leads explain how we’re unlocking talent and educating a new, unlikely generation of justice defenders.
Justice Defenders’ Brenda Ambani, explains how the programme started. “When our founder and CEO Alexander McLean visited prisons all around Africa, he saw firsthand the overcrowding. He saw that it’s often the poorest and least educated people who find themselves in prison,” she explains.
“So in 2012 in Uganda and 2013 in Kenya, he set up the partnership with the University of London. Bringing access to world-class education for people who would otherwise be overlooked by society.”
Introducing a distance-learning university course within prisons isn’t easy.
“Getting buy-in from some prison officials on the need to educate those in prison was difficult,” Justice Defenders’ Milly Kakungulu explains. Through continued conversations we’ve been able to build a strong working relationship with the prison service in both countries.
“It's just a matter of communicating and letting people know in advance,” Brenda adds. “At the beginning of each semester, we always sit down together as a team with the prison service. We work out the timetables so that everybody is aware.
“Of course, we have to abide by the prison rules, for example only meeting in the morning and then between 2pm and 4pm. We work closely with the prison officers who help facilitate the movement of people for the classes.
“Things have improved a lot. I remember in the early days [of the programme] I had to give the students my own textbooks from my degree. Now we receive donated supplies.”
Aptitude to serving others is a key prerequisite.
The University of London law degree our students study, is the same as that taken by students across the world. To ensure students are not only equipped to succeed in the law degree but are committed to serving others, the selection process evaluates character and ability to learn.
“In shared sleeping spaces, our students have to ask others to be quiet and if they can leave the light on so that they can read.” Milly explains the level of commitment needed.
The prerequisites for studying the law degree from prison:
· A demonstrable commitment to serving others.
· An aspiration to provide legal services to others at our prison-based legal office.
· Verbal and written English language skills.
· In Kenya, a cumulative mean grade of a C+ in secondary examinations and a B in English or Kiswahili.
· In Uganda, a diploma or an Advanced Certificate of Education.
The impact on the wider prison community impact.
Our students and graduates are trained alongside hundreds of others to become paralegals. Once trained, they are expected to work in our prison-based legal offices, to provide legal services to anyone who enters. Ranging from conducting mass legal awareness sessions, offering information on court etiquette, to plea bargaining and alternative dispute resolution. All of which are crucial considering 90% of people in Kenyan and Ugandan prisons cannot afford a lawyer.
“I believe the education programme has created tangible change in the lives of those in prison.” Milly explains. “If people say they committed crimes out of ignorance, they cannot say the same again. The programme has given our students an opportunity to understand and adopt the law and break down the meaning to a layperson without changing its substance.”
It’s not only us who are seeing the impact. Brenda describes how the courts in Kenya are recognising the work of our graduates. “We are now seeing the courts - even the judges and the magistrates - respecting our students and appreciating them,” she explains.
“In fact, last week in Machakos High Court, the judge specifically called one or two of our graduates and asked them to take up a matter and prepare the documentation. He told them to present a case on behalf of a client.
“It’s very refreshing to see the students use the law to petition for change. It is good news… when they do public interest litigation and you see their education at work, it’s very fulfilling.”
University of London law students take part in a moot court (a mock court session) at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Kenya.
Promoting personal growth.
The university programme has offered students more than just education; it has provided many with a chance to develop their confidence and leadership skills.
Brenda explains: “One of the students told me: ‘The day you enter prison, yourself esteem goes down. But with this law degree, my self-esteem has gone higher than I would have ever imagined.’ So, education is a very powerful thing and I'm happy to be part of this.
“When we’re inside prison, we are not just tutors per se. We don't just deliver legal education. I realised at some point, we’re sort of counsellors in our own way because at times you go into class and you see somebody who is not even able to speak because they have something that's troubling them. So just the fact that you're taking time to listen to them often, you see that helps the person bounce back. It’s a joyous feeling.”
Some exceptional students like Gibson, Betty and Joseph go on to be promoted to a special status within the prison, recognised in the law as a trusteeship. As part of their responsibilities, these trusted members of the prison community act as a bridge between those in prison and the authorities.
Reintegration is a pillar of the programme.
Teaching law within the prison environment comes with challenges. To ensure they respond to the students needs, Milly and Brenda work closely with formerly incarcerated people.
Upon their release, law students and graduates are invited to apply for one of our one-year work placements to support their reintegration into society and the workplace.
Some of whom, like Meschack Otieno and Alex Dimba, become teaching assistants. They review examiners' reports, help students with research, sometimes teach modules and assist in marking.
The positives extend further than just for the individual. Access to justice is the baseline for civilised democracy and development. Without it, the rule of law collapses, and we cannot expect to live in peaceful and inclusive societies. Not only are people equipped with legal education, but they are able to actively participate in the economy.
“He who put you in here; the joke is on him.”
“What’s the most gratifying part of being a teacher for me? Well, every day is different, there are little things that happen and I think: ‘Oh wow I was a part of that.’” Milly shares. “Giving someone an opportunity to genuinely change the narrative of their life and to look back on their prison years and feel like that wasn't a waste.
“There’s a phrase we usually say here in Uganda: 'He who put you in here; the joke is on him.'
“They put you there to punish you and then you come out with so much value, you know you helped thousands of people.”
Note: All photography and videos were taken before the Covid-19 pandemic.