This is how we found each other.
In 2006, through caring for patients in a Ugandan hospital, I encountered an unconscious man brought in by the local police. Apparently he’d fallen into a diabetic coma.
I found the man comatose on the hospital floor. His body had laid on a plastic sheet in a pool of urine for so long that the flesh on his bottom and back was rotten down to the bone. For five days, I tried to wash him and care for him before he died and was placed in a mass grave. He had no family to mourn him, no friend to pay respects. As I cared for him, and later, prisoners like Fred Mburu and Peter Kamya as they died, I realized there are people whose lives are judged to have no value by their community or government. This left me furious and heartbroken, yet motivated to bring dignity to those deemed worthless. This emotional experience led to my first prison visit.
I bulldozed my way into Uganda’s maximum-security prison. It was built in the 1920s when Uganda was a British colony. Designed to hold 600, it now approaches 4,000 inmates. As I walked the hallways, I learned 2/3 of prisoners hadn’t been tried. I visited death row, designed for 50 and holding 500, and heard of Edward Mpagi, who had been sentenced to death for murder. After 12 years on death row, it turned out that the person he supposedly killed was still alive. It would take another six years before he could be released. I was told of another who’d stolen a mango from a neighbour’s tree using a Stanley knife. He’d been sentenced to death for armed robbery.
Injustices clouded my senses in a place meant for justice.
Change could not be prolonged. In 2007, I registered the African Prisons Project as a UK charity. Throughout our first few years, we bathed dying prisoners, established prison clinics, and ran prison education programmes. Over time, we began to question why almost all of the prisoners we met came from the poorest, most vulnerable parts of society. And why those who made and implemented the law came from backgrounds of greater privilege.
Our experience led us to the conclusion shared by Bryan Stevenson: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”
We discovered shocking information, like the fact that up to half of prisoners are innocent. We saw that no matter what we did to improve the welfare of people in prison, if they didn’t have justice, they wouldn’t have peace.
In 2017, our focus shifted from making prisons better to providing access to justice. A few years later, in 2020, we rebranded and relaunched as Justice Defenders. Our mission? Equip defenceless communities with legal training to defend themselves and others. Who better to work to make, shape and implement the law than those who have experienced conflict with it for themselves?
Prisoners, ex-prisoners, and prison staff offer unique perspectives on legal systems. Yet their experiences are rarely acknowledged. Bringing them together with prosecutors, the police, judges, experienced lawyers, and academics creates remarkable possibilities for good.
Death row inmates in Uganda call me ‘a prisoner by choice.’ However, I also sit as a magistrate (a junior judge) in London and send people to prison. I am the descendant of both slaves and slave owners. I come from those who have perpetrated great crimes and those who have suffered. And I believe legal education creates a more just society for all.
Through working in an adversarial justice system, we have the opportunity to make bridges of our lives – between the rich and the poor. Between those with power and those without. Between black and white.
So, who are we, really?
We are justice-oriented individuals from different countries, faiths and social groups. All are guided by one statement: we are a ‘community of servants, accountable stewards and courageous changemakers.’
“I’m massively inspired by the prisoners and prison officers we work with, but especially by the prisoners. They may be living in a cell that they share with eight other people. They may not have a bed. Or a proper toilet. They may not get to see their children more than once a year. But if they are still able to be kind, to offer hospitality and to study, even when it has to be by torchlight, what does this mean for me in terms of the courage I might have, or the compassion I can offer others?” - Alexander McLean