The prisoners in this classroom are friendly. They laugh and joke as they weave new ways to write their appeals, rattling off quotes from the Kenya Law Report that they painstakingly copied down by hand. The two advocates from Christian Legal Education Aid and Research(CLEAR) who are leading this class to train prisoners to be paralegals need to stop and think if anyone else has ever used this defense in an appeal before. These students are sharp.
One prisoner is particularly inspired in his battle to win an appeal case against his charge of Robbery with Violence, a capitol offence in Kenya. He devours every newspaper or case file he can get his hands on, searching for everything that could help him or his fellow prisoners get free. He meets weekly, sometimes even daily, with other prisoners who are interested in legal debate and discussion, in addition to the biweekly class with CLEAR.
The class is primarily designed to help teach prisoners and prison officers to become functioning paralegals, proficient in drafting appeals. These are issues that are paramount to helping prisoners get justice for their cases.
Peter Onyango an advocate based in Kisumu, leads the class with scholarly style. He treats the prisoners as university students not passive victims and perpetrators, starting every class off by asking them what they learned last session. He doesn’t let anyone off easy and always presses for more thought and debate as they work to become empowered prisoners capable of deciding their own fate.
The prison documentation office would feel normal in a photograph of colonialism in Africa. Three officers sit around desks with piles and piles of hand written papers instead of computers. There isn’t even electricity in the room; all the light comes from one small high barred window. Amidst one of the largest piles of papers sits a derelict typewriter donated by a local NGO to the prison to help teach English to prisoners.
Almost every single appeal at the prison goes through this one typewriter and there are currently hundreds of appeals in progress, each needing seven copies. The problems with this system really started a few months back when the prison documentation office’s original typewriter broke down, paralyzing all appeals. This breakdown required many to seek special permission to file an appeal after the 14 day deadline.
The office had to borrow the one other typewriter in the entire prison so that the one man who types every appeal could get back to work.
The officer claims that it takes him around 30 minutes to do a single page of an appeal because of the required editing and problems reading prisoner’s handwriting. The time seriously adds up and his typing becomes a mammoth task on top of his other officer duties.
The problem with justice for these prisoners is not corrupt prison officers or even corrupt judges or magistrates as many assume, instead it all comes down to simple economics. A small investment in a computer and printer could help stop the huge systematic failure plaguing the appeal process at this prison.
This prison was built 50 years ago for a much smaller prison population. Prisoners sleep 7 in a room that is just large enough to fit two small cots. Prisoners serving for capitol offences are kept together in a confined area and are rarely allowed out. For many of the students, this class is the one source of hope that keeps life and their future of their case manageable.
CLEAR’s work also includes organizing rural community legal education, pro-bono representation for the neediest clients including prisoners and children in remand homes, and organizing legal workshops to help better inform advocates, magistrates, judges, and administrators about pressing legal issues.
CLEAR’s work in this prison was made possible by a grant from the Justice Makers competition run by International Bridges to Justice a Geneva based NGO. The competition looked for eight projects that were working to take innovative action to promote human rights and justice throughout the world.