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Against odds, Kenyan inmates studying law to free themselves

Kamiti: From illiteracy to legal studies, a number of Africans are defying the odds and studying their way out of prison. A law project, the African Prisons Project, is educating illiterate prisoners into their own legal advocates in a country where such assistance is desperately rare.

Inmates of Kenyan jail studying law

Under this project, prisoners in Kenyan jails are learning law to improve their chances of release. Surprisingly, hundreds of them in Kenya and Uganda freed themselves in the court battle.

Between January-October 2018, eight hundred prisoners have been freed according to the African Prisons Project.

African Prisons Project

In 2007, then-British law student Alexander McLean, who was volunteering in Uganda, had founded the African Prisons Project in Kenya and neighboring Uganda after witnessing the sorry state of inmates with few resources to fight for themselves.

Under the project, inmates who need it are mastering basic literacy and then encouraged to study law. Project staffers and inmates role-play in mock court situations while law students act as judges.

"These were people who were not able to access justice before because of their backgrounds, said Hamisi Mzari, a legal aid officer with the project at Kenya's Kamiti Maximum Prison.

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“They were coming from families which could not afford either to take them to school and get formal education and so understand the implications of earning an honest living or, their families were poor to an extent where they were not able to pay lawyers. So as APP (African Prisons Project), the organisation has come in and empowering these prisoners to be able to access justice and be the ones to champion their own fate," Mzari added.

The experience can transform inmates and change how others treat them. "People are now seeing that the people whom we took into prison, whom we had considered that they are the litter and the garbage of society, they are now coming out as polished gold," Mzari said.

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What Inmates say

George Karaba (45) had been charged with murder and sentenced to death. He said he had lost hope. Now he's applying for a presidential pardon and has become a trustee, with a leadership role among his peers.

"Once I was sentenced to death, basically we lost hope, we were just done and it was so serious because during that particular time, they were still contemplating that they were going to execute the people who had done their appeals. And during that time we had really lost hope and we had lost it and we did not have anywhere to go and we did not have anything to peg our lives upon and it is during that particular time when we were still thinking of how, maybe we are waiting for the warrants to be signed, that is when APP (African Prisons Project) came around," said Karaba.

Morris Kaberia was on Kenya's death row and feeling suicidal when he came across a program that eventually set him free. The former police officer had been imprisoned for violent robbery, and his protests of being framed went unanswered.

In September, the 47-year-old was released after representing himself in court.

He is now pursuing a law degree from the University of London. "Joining the program is actually the thing which gave me my life back," he said. "I saw that there is a possibility of thinking big ... that the walls cannot limit me," he said.

Meshack Otieno, a prisoner at Naivasha Prison, said the project has changed his life.

"I can say that throughout my prison life I have been studying because I entered prison in the year 2013, and in 2018 I have cleared my degree and I have like a year and a half to go. So I am very glad that I have spent my prison life in a productive manner."

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The project also helps former prisoners into positions where they can work to revise what they call unjust laws.

Yet huge challenges remain. Internet access is limited by lack of resources and security restrictions. Even basic classroom facilities are hard to arrange.

Still, the project hopes to establish a law college in Kenya's Naivasha Maximum Prison in 2020 with the aim of expanding legal services to some 10,000 inmates. Some 5,000 prisoners have received training or services so far.

"The African Prisons Project has enabled the prisoners to have a better understanding of their case and a better way of presenting it before court, hence the improved success rate of their cases," Kenyan High Court judge Luka Kimaru said.

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Currently 60 prisoners are studying at the University of London Law degrees via correspondence from 30 prisons in Kenya and Uganda, the African Prisons Project said. The work is supported by the Queens Commonwealth Trust.



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