Jessica: Hey, there. It’s Jessica Honegger, founder of the socially conscious fashion brand, Noonday Collection. And this is the Going Scared podcast where we cover all things social impact, entrepreneurship, and courage. Today, I want you to get ready for a really important episode. Alexander McClean is the founder and direct general of the African Prisons Project. Their mission is to empower changemakers within prisons, who will use the law to bring justice to some of the world’s most vulnerable through their Justice Changemaker program. You’re going to learn in detail how Alexander entered into the suffering of prisoners living in East Africa. I’d ask you today to draw a circle of compassion, not just around yourself, but around the prisoners that today are living in East Africa. He does not gloss over how his heart broke and how he came to discover the injustices that are occurring every day to his East African brothers and sisters. But he really takes us on the journey from how do you go from broken heart and from acts of mercy to really creating organization that is changing the world, that is offering a sustainable solution to the problems that he saw.
And that is why I was so encouraged by today’s episode. Alexander is a true leader, he’s a leader that I would aspire to be like—humble, passionate—and today we talk about how sometimes when we awaken to the injustices of the world, it’s easy to be judgmental, and it’s easy to want to beat over people’s heads why they should care. Today, I asked him, “How do you get people to care?” So, if there is an issue that you’re passionate about, if there is a problem in the world that has broken your heart, today’s episode is going to matter to you because he takes us from the journey of a broken heart and doing acts of mercy into really becoming the solution to the problem that you see by creating a systematic solution to the injustice. Alexander is the kind of leader that I aspire to be—humble, passionate, and patient.
Jessica: Alexander, thank you so much for your time joining us today on the Going Scared podcast.
Alexander: My pleasure to be with you. Thank you for inviting me.
Jessica: I’m really looking forward to talking about African Prison Project today just because I think so many of us, we know that the American justice system needs reform, but many of us don’t understand actually what the prison systems look like in areas of the world like Africa. I work a ton in Africa. A lot of our business is with my African colleagues, and they have often talked about what prisons are like in their country, so I’m really looking forward to hearing more. But I’m curious, what led you to this? I really wanna know more about you as a young person, as an activist. What led you to where you are now?
Alexander: I’d volunteered in a hospice in London from when I was 16, and I became very interested in how dying people are looked after and realized I could learn a lot from people who are coming to the ends of their lives. When I was 18, I went to volunteer at a hospice in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. I’d read about them in a U.K. newspaper and their work caring for people dying at home of cancer and HIV and AIDS. It was very powerful. That was a transformative time in my life. I spent a month with the hospice following the doctors and nurses as they cared for people who were dying. Sometimes I was asked to say a prayer, but I didn’t feel like it’d be very helpful as an 18-year-old boy without a medical background. One day we went to Mulago, Uganda’s National Referral Hospital. The hospice team was taking morphine to a dying patient in a ward. As we went into the ward, I saw a man lying on the floor by the toilet. He was naked on a plastic sheet, and the nurse said that the police had found him unconscious in a market. It was thought he was in a diabetic coma. He had no money. They didn’t know his name or if he had a family and he got no care because he couldn’t pay. And so, he was lying in a pool of urine and the flesh from his bottom and back was rotting down to the bone because he was decomposing when he was still alive.
I went back the next day and bought a basin, and a bar soap, and a towel, and found a nurse who’d been trained by the hospice to help me, inspired by a message I’d had the previous day from the lady who founded the hospice, a former nun and a doctor who has worked in Africa since 1960, called Anne Merriman. She said, “With someone like that who’s dying, he can die when he feels love.” So, with that nurse, I washed him, I got him some bedding, I tried to advocate for him with the docs that although he had no one to pay for his care, would they treat him? For five days, I washed him and tried to advocate and take care of him. I came on the sixth day, and he died the night before. He was lying dead and naked on the floor. And after a while, a porter came with a trolley, and you’d say a gurney, with a dead lady on it, put the man on top of the woman, and said they’d go in a mass grave together with everyone else who had no one to bury them. That was a turning point in my life because I realized that there are people in our world whose lives just have no value, who live and die like dogs. I spent three months on that ward washing and caring for people dying of AIDS, with tuberculosis, who’ve been abandoned by their families, and it was there that I got to know prisoners for the first time.
Seeing Prisoners: A New Vision in Proximity
Jessica: So, it was through volunteering at the hospital, the public hospital, that you got to know prisoners. So, tell me a little bit more about that process.
Alexander: I’d meet prisoners who were brought into hospital when they’re very sick. And I got to realize that because of their prison uniforms, doctors and nurses often shunned them. It was possible for a prisoner to die of starvation or dehydration when they were in hospital. As I cared for these men, they were usually men or boys, I got to know them. I realized actually they weren’t monsters, and in many cases, they were similar to me. Most of them were in prison for having underage sex, one of the most common offenses in Uganda, which has a maximum penalty of death. I’d meet 16-year-old boys who’d had consensual sex with their 16-year-old girlfriends, but because she was underage, he could find himself in prison for many years. Often, they had been in prison for years without trial. Very rarely did they have lawyers, and almost always, they were very poor.
“I’d meet prisoners who were brought into hospital when they’re very sick. And I got to realize that because of their prison uniforms, doctors and nurses often shunned them. It was possible for a prisoner to die of starvation or dehydration when they were in hospital.” Alexander McClean on volunteering in Mulago, Uganda’s National Referral Hospital.
Sometimes I’d meet those who’d come out of the police station that may have been tortured by the police, sometimes with their fingernails pulled out or with broken bones because the police had limited resources and yet had to be seen to be solving crime. And this process of washing, and feeding, and providing basic care gave me proximity to learn about the life of someone who’s been in prison or someone who’s been in conflict with the law. And I saw it as a privilege to come alongside them. And it was exciting for me to start building a community of student nurses and gardeners from the hospice I was staying at and security guards who’d come to the hospital with me, and together we’d take care of these prisoners and other abandoned patients. I saw that there was joy in coming together to serve together and to love those that are most rejected.
Jessica: I do a lot of work in Kampala as well, and part of our main business that helped found my social business is based in Kampala. And the business owners there regularly go to Mulago and visit with patients there. Paint us a picture … I mean, you did paint us such a real picture of the hospital there, but I think it’s really challenging for the Western person. When we hear hospital, we have something in our minds that’s very clear that comes to mind. Most of us have been to a hospital, and we have a very clear picture of what that is, but tell us what the typical patient experience is at a public hospital in a place like Kampala.
Alexander: So, my experience is mostly informed by looking after patients who were prisoners or abandoned and didn’t have money. If you have money, you can pay for all sorts of services, but if you don’t … I think it was typified by one lady who had a mental illness as well as I think HIV. And I got to know her in the hospital. And the nurses called her Nana because all she said was, "Nana, nana, nana." And she lay on the floor of this ward, and usually with diarrhea on her, sometimes with maggots coming out of her. And I started to take care of her. And with time, she started saying, "Mama, mama, mama," when she saw me. I couldn’t understand why the doctors had discharged her because she clearly had nowhere to go, and no one was giving her any care. And, eventually, she died, and I paid for her to be cleaned and given some dignity before she was buried because otherwise her life just seemed to be totally unrecognized as having value by anyone.
I met a prisoner called Fred Mburu, who’d been accused of stealing a goat worth maybe $30. He’d been in prison for a year waiting for his trial, and during that time he was beaten by a prison officer. He got a wound, and he got tetanus in that wound. He was taken to hospital. And for maybe three months, I and others around me looked after Fred, and we tried to feed him and bathe him. He got weaker and weaker. Sometimes he’d have convulsions. He’d just convulse out of his bed onto the floor, and he’d be left there by the prison officers guarding him, and gradually he faded away and died. We then held a funeral for him and tried to bury him with dignity.
One evening I met a man in a prison uniform. He was called Silva. And his uniform was covered with poo everywhere, and we washed him and went by the next day, and he was on oxygen. And I knew the fact he was on oxygen must’ve meant he was pretty ill because that was I guess one of the more advanced treatments. Now, I said to the doctor, "What happened to him?" The doctor said, "Well, he’s got meningitis." I said, "Well, what are you doing?" He said, "I’d prescribed the drugs, but we don’t have them." I said, "Well, this guy looks really sick. What are you going to do?" He said, "Well, I don’t know what I can do because we don’t have the drugs." I said, "But your job is to treat and is to make people well, and you can see this man sick. And if you just put on the white coat and your stethoscope and write prescriptions for drugs you know aren’t there, it’s like acting." And the doctor and I almost fell out. An Austrian medical student who has now become a very good friend intervened, and then Silva died a few hours later.
I was struck by seeing rats run around on the ward of the hospital or sometimes needles lying around on the floor and seeing a huge amount of death, and real screaming and wailing and just tremendous … for me, my heart was broken there again and again, and I learned that justice doesn’t just take place in the courtroom. I saw tremendous injustice there and people who were refused basic dignity or love or compassion because of their poverty or because they were wearing prison uniforms. And I think, for me, that proximity and that act of washing people and caring for them in an intimate way … I think about a chap called Peter Kamya who was in his early twenties and a prisoner with AIDS. And he had Norwegian scabies, which makes all of your skin peel off. And for a week we tried to get him treatment, but at the end of it he died, and I was left with scabies from him. But that proximity transformed me, and I realized actually, fundamentally, as human beings we want to feel loved. We want to feel known. We want to feel that we belong, and regardless of what we’ve done or who we are or what others have said about us. That’s a gift that we can give each other. And I saw that my dignity thrived, my humanity thrived when I played a role in upholding other’s humanity and dignity.
“That proximity transformed me, and I realized actually, fundamentally, as human beings we want to feel loved. We want to feel known. We want to feel that we belong, and regardless of what we’ve done or who we are or what others have said about us. That’s a gift that we can give each other. And I saw that my dignity thrived, my humanity thrived when I played a role in upholding other’s humanity and dignity.” Alexander McClean
True Mercy Means Reformation
Jessica: I’m struck by these acts of mercy and how when we proximate ourselves to those who are suffering, we often awaken to our own dignity like you said. But it’s one thing to do these acts of mercy and to go back to your comfortable life. What is your journey of going from acts of mercy to international justice organization? The African Prisons Project is now really going after the systemic issues of injustice for prisoners in both Kenya and in Uganda. Well, what was your journey of then knowing, "How do I go about reforming something that can feel like it lacks the ability to even be reformed?"
Alexander: In a nutshell, I’d met prisoners in that hospital. I was intrigued as to where they came from. I bulldozed my way into Uganda’s maximum-security prison, a place called Luzira, which was built in the 1920s for 600 and now has up to 4,000 inmates. I was very moved by what I saw there or by going to death row and hearing of a person who’d used a penknife to steal a mango from someone else’s mango tree. Because he’d stolen, because he’d used a penknife—or you maybe know it as a pocket knife—and cut it off. He was sentenced to death as an armed robber. I went into the prison hospital, as I went in, a teenage boy died. It was a horrible environmental die to die in. And I ended up refurbishing that hospital during my year out, and then I went on to university to study law. I spent my university holidays going to prisons in Uganda, and Kenya, and Sierra Leone starting libraries and clinics believing that these facilities would bring dignity to people in prison.
So, in countries filled with NGOs, there weren’t so many doing work in prison. There were some churches who’d often had long relationships with prison and were going in to do Bible studies or to provide nutritional support, but on the whole, it seemed that there were many needs which weren’t being met. So, I started the African Prisons Project when I was 21 to bring dignity, and hope, and justice to men, and women, and children in prison. People said, "Why do you want to do that kind of work?" And it’s a question I’ve been asked so many times because many people, even people of faith, say, "Why serve prisoners?" And I talk about having many instances of my heart being broken. I go into Juba Women’s Prison in South Sudan, seeing a woman close to the door, to the prison in chains, with chains on her arms and her legs. And I said to the officer escorting me, "Why is she chained up?" He said, "Well, we chain up our lunatics," which is maybe a third of the prison. And I can say, "Hey, you’re crazy," and you’re taken to prison, but there’s no treatment. But also, those are going to be executed. Although South Sudan is the world’s youngest country, it’s still hanging people. I said, "What’s going to happen to this woman?" So, he said, "Well, with her and a number of the other women here, she’s not done anything wrong. Her husband was accused of a capital crime, and because the police couldn’t catch him, his wife was arrested and sentenced to die in his place."
“On the whole, it seemed that there were many needs which weren’t being met. So, I started the African Prisons Project when I was 21 to bring dignity, and hope, and justice to men, and women, and children in prison.” Alexander McClean
Often, I’ve met women in prison in Northern Uganda and also in Kenya who said, "Well, I had a child who got sick. I took them to the hospital, but there was no medication there. The child died, and the police arrested me for child neglect, and they’ve taken me to prison alongside the rest of my children." Or people who’ve attempted suicide, which is an offense in Kenya. People at their most vulnerable, who end up being imprisoned for that vulnerability. And so, it seemed that there were many cases of injustice and people being treated without compassion. As an organization, we started to invest in prison infrastructure. We saw that actually by themselves, buildings don’t change much. So, then we started bringing librarians, teachers, and counselors to do things like mother and baby reading groups and had our literacy classes in prisons around Kampala, Uganda’s capital. We saw that it was really expensive to try and bring more and more experts into prison, and actually, there was this amazing expertise in prison. So, we started to train prisoners and prison officers together, side by side, to be adult literacy teachers. We trained them to provide basic health services in prisons without doctors and nurses or clinics, a model called the prison Village Health Team model, which has been taken by the Ugandan government and scaled to all prisons in Uganda, all the 240 of them.
Legal Agency from Within Prison Systems
But where we saw some real magic was training prisoners and prison officers in law. We started to ask, Why is it that almost none of the prisoners we meet have ever met a lawyer? Why is it that prisoners seem to come from the poorest backgrounds and have the least education? Very many lawyers come from backgrounds of privilege. Why is it that some prisoners say, "Well, I sold everything I had to pay a lawyer. The lawyer took all the money and was never seen again." Why do the lawyers have huge agency and our societies and prisoners have very little? And so, in 2012, we started training prisoners and prison officers in law, putting some through University of London law degrees to study by correspondence from their prisons as Nelson Mandela did from prison in South Africa, training others as paralegals, giving them basic legal knowledge.
Now, we’ve got a community of more than 300 prisoners and prison officers in Uganda and Kenya. We are preparing to start work in prisons in Sudan. We’ve been invited into the Gambia and many other countries around Africa and beyond. And every day we’re working on bail applications and preparing people for trial, and writing appeals. Prisoners and prison officers together are doing this work, and last year, we saw more than 2,000 people released from prisons in Uganda and Kenya, having had their cases worked on by African Prisons Project’s paralegals.
We’re excited about the idea that those who suffered at the hands of the law can be involved in getting justice for others. Our first Kenyan University of London student is a man called Pete Ouko. He studied law from death row. He graduated with his University of London Diploma in law in 2014, and it was covered extensively in the Kenyan media. And a laborer working for a construction site in Nairobi saw this graduation in the media. Sometime later a dog belonging to the person in charge of his construction site bit him. He said to that person, "I need you to pay for my medical treatment because your dog has injured me." The person said, "I won’t pay, and you’re fired." This man sensed he’d been wrongly dismissed. He knew he couldn’t afford a lawyer, he’d only been earning a few dollars a day and now he had no income. And he remembered that Pete was at Kamiti Maximum Prison, so he went to the prison. He said to the guards on the gate, "You’ve got a lawyer inside. I want to see him." They let him in. He explained his case to Pete and Pete sued this man’s former employer from prison, got him a payment of about $10,000, equivalent to several years’ salary.
“We’re excited about the idea that those who suffered at the hands of the law can be involved in getting justice for others.” Alexander McClean
So, for us, we’re excited about the idea that justice can be done from prison. We’re excited to see prison officers that we’ve trained going to court and speaking on behalf of prisoners and winning them their freedom. We’re excited to be building this cohort of prisoners and prison officers working with lawyers and law teachers, people from diverse backgrounds. Some have committed serious offenses, some have been wrongly in prison, some have tortured, some have been tortured. But working with passion and conviction to bring justice to the poor, and the rejected, going to the margins of society as serving lawyers saying, "We’re here to love you. The law can be the key to your freedom. It can offer you hope. They can offer you a new future."
“But [we’re] working with passion and conviction to bring justice to the poor, and the rejected, going to the margins of society as serving lawyers saying, ‘We’re here to love you. The law can be the key to your freedom. It can offer you hope. They can offer you a new future.’” Alexander McClean
Jessica: So, you’re finding that the laws that are in place aren’t necessarily what needs reform. It’s actually the exercising of the law and the advocating of the law to actually be represented in the way that it’s written.
Rewriting Broken Laws
Alexander: There’s tremendous scope for reform. And definitely, we question, why do we see people in prison in East Africa for being debtors? Why do we see people in prison, often poor mothers, for illegal collection of firewood? Why are there so many vagrants and vagabonds and idlers in prison? In South Sudan, I was told a story of a five-year-old child swimming in a river with a three-year-old friend, and the three-year-old drowned. The five-year-old was arrested and sentenced to death for murder. So, the detail of legislation and the detail of laws and legal practice is definitely something to challenge. And in both Uganda and Kenya, we’ve had law students on death row who’ve been involved in cases which have challenged the mandatory death sentence in those countries. Formally, judges had to sentence anyone guilty of murder or armed robbery to death. As a result of cases, our students have been involved in, this is no longer the case. So, we’re working to change laws, which we think are unjust. Every day we’re in legal aid clinics, and about 40 prisons, we’re working on cases for individuals. And we’re also asking what does it look like for those who got firsthand experience of suffering under the law to move into positions where they make, shape, and implement the law. So, a chap called Moses, who is our first University of London law graduate in Uganda started out as a prisoner, studied law with the University of London. He worked on his own appeal. He got his conviction overturned, and now he’s a lawyer in the Ugandan army. We think that journey from prisoner to lawyer is a powerful one, and his firsthand experience can equip him to do justice in transformative ways.
“We’re working to change laws, which we think are unjust. Every day we’re in legal aid clinics, and about 40 prisons, we’re working on cases for individuals. And we’re also asking what does it look like for those who got firsthand experience of suffering under the law to move into positions where they make, shape, and implement the law.” Alexander McClean
Jessica: So, Moses was actually still a prisoner as he went through law school.
Alexander: Yup. He was. We’re excited to have a community of more than 50 people like Moses, who from prison are studying law. With students on death row in Uganda, we had to give them flashlights to study with because there wasn’t light in their cells. But prisoners and prison officers, side by side, go to law classes in the prisons. They’re studying law, and they’re applying that knowledge as they go. Part of the week is spent studying and a part of the week is spent working on cases, and they’re doing great. We’ve got 17 who’ve completed their law degrees so far. Five last year got first class marks, the highest marks in the University of London awards. And so, we’ve seen that in prison there are brains that can move mountains, as one of our students has said, and all sorts of creative ideas for how the law can be used to create fairer societies.
Jessica: Do you find that working in … because African Prisons Project is based in Kenya and Uganda, is that correct?
Jessica: Do you find that the law, both within Kenya and Uganda, is similar?
Alexander: Yes, there are many similarities. These are both common law, legal systems, which were based on the British legal system in the late Victorian period when Britain took over control of these countries. There are similarities in terms of … if you go into a court in Uganda, you can find a judge in the same kind of horsehair wig and robes that you’ll find in courts here in London. When it comes to the punishments and offenses which both countries have in place, there are tremendous similarities in the reasons why people end up in prison. I spent time in about 130 prisons in 15 countries around Africa and around the world, and in all of those in the Commonwealth, the countries which were formerly British colonies, there are many similarities in terms of offenses and punishments. And we find that, on the whole, prisons are filled with poor people who are there for things like being vagrants, idlers, for stealing, for having underage sex, and then those charged with more serious offenses like armed robbery or murder, and some will definitely have committed those offenses and will deserve punishment. But the head of Uganda Prison Service on one of our video says, "We’ve got the gallows, we’ve got the executioners. Well, we can’t be sure if we’re hanging anyone that they’re actually guilty of any offense because we know that our justice system doesn’t work as it should."
Scale and Support for African Prisons Project
Jessica: I’m curious about your journey as you began to scale your organization. And obviously, your organization needs money, but you are, obviously, the operational field person. I mean, you’re passionate about actually what’s happening in the field and scaling the projects that are happening in Kenya and Uganda. What was your journey scaling the organization and going about raising the money that you need to operationalize what you are wanting to put in place as the visionary of the organization?
Alexander: I think there have been a few key milestones. I think one was when I realized that there was only so much that I could do as someone who’d never been in prison, and so much that other staff could do as those who hadn’t been in prison, and that there was this amazing resource of prisoners and prison officers who understood prison. There were people who were loving their neighbors as themselves whilst in prison, prisoners and prison offices, the prison officers earning about $100 a month who were teaching in the prison schools or running prison football teams and who were really trying their best to bring dignity and hope to others. And so, we thought, "Well, how do we tap into this? How do we equip those who are already making a difference to do so more effectively? And first, we were very excited to be building this movement of people in prison who are transforming their communities.
We’ve seen that raising funds for this kind of work isn’t easy because few people prioritize prison issues. And it’s exciting to see that prison reform in the U.S. is gaining momentum. And we think there’s much that America could learn about what it looks like for prisoners and prison officers to share life and to work together and to study together and to find collaborative solutions to their problems or the way that education can be totally transformative, and how giving trust to prisoners can be transformative. But those interested in penal reform in the U.S. tended not to have thought about what was going on beyond America or those in the U.K. thinking about what was going on beyond Britain. And so, we saw that this work was a hard sell. People say, "Why do you wanna bother with these people?"
And so, taking time to educate prospective supporters, loving to welcome people to spend time with us on the ground and to see for themselves and to be part of conversations with prisoners and prison officers and often to be transformed by them was very powerful and finding who our people are. And now our income comes from a mix of individuals, some of them are highly successful entrepreneurs, some of them giving a few dollars each month, some support from trusts and foundations, and some support from corporates, especially some of American and Britain’s largest law firms. Our support comes from a very diverse group of people, some motivated by their faith and saying, "Well, as a Christian, I believe that there’s value in every life, and I believe that we have to be quick to love and slow to judge. And I believe that we all need second chances, and we’re better than the worst thing that we’ve done."
Some, being entrepreneurial, say, "I love the impact that you’re having as an organization, although your budget is only a modest one. This year, there’ll be around $2 million and the impact that you are having, you’re really punching above your weight." It is because of this way that we’re tapping into the motivation and the commitment of prisoners and prison officers who we train, and then they immediately go on to serve others. I think that building strategic allies and partnerships has been crucial to us and recognizing that, as an organization, we can be a bridge builder. That could look like building a relationship with Oxford, or Cambridge, or Stanford, and having students and academics coming out to spend time in the prisons we work in teaching law or supporting our students in their studies, it could be the attention that we pay to inviting members of the local legal community in Uganda and Kenya into prisons to have meals with prisoners and prison officers, and to discuss the work that we’re doing and to find collaborative solutions to injustice in society.
I think that our growth has come from our attention to relationship. When we don’t attend to relationships, we often get into difficulty. But really wanting to be an organization that has a posture of collaboration, has a posture of openness, and has a posture of being unlikely allies, I think that that’s won us friends in unexpected places, whether having support from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, and Prince Harry and Megan who are the president and vice president of that, whether having very senior judges who come into prison to give talks or to give mentoring to our students. And we’re a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, but with a shared passion for living in fairer and more just community.
“I think that our growth has come from our attention to relationship. When we don’t attend to relationships, we often get into difficulty. But really wanting to be an organization that has a posture of collaboration, has a posture of openness, and has a posture of being unlikely allies, I think that that’s won us friends in unexpected places.” Alexander McClean
Inviting People into Collaboration
Jessica: So, do you think that is what you … as you’re trying to get people to care because it’s hard to get people to care about prisoners in Kenya and Uganda. The very western assumption is that bad people are in jail and good people aren’t, and we all know, hopefully, all of us know that that simply isn’t the case. So, what are those ways that you are getting people to care? I mean, I know you are obviously an incredible storyteller, but when you think about is that being one of your obstacles is you are wanting just to simply first get people to care. And I’m thinking about the listener right now who might be passionate about a certain issue and maybe she’s on her way to starting the next global justice organization. Maybe she is gonna be helping to fund your organization in a couple of years. How would you help people that are in that position of needing to get people to care about something that matters? What would you tell her?
Alexander: I’ll tell her that it takes time and that we might have experiences which break our hearts or fill us with conviction, who calls us to go all in doing work. But it takes time for others to capture our vision, and we should be patient and be merciful on ourselves. Even for me to get my family on board and to support this work took time. That we should be, I think quick to invite others in to walk alongside and to look for opportunities to create allies. For me, it’s through spending time on the ground in prison with prospective supporters, or partners, or staff, or volunteers and say, "Come and have a look at this world we’re part of, and dream with us about the world that we might build together." I think of thinking intentionally about how to interact with the media is key, and we’ve been quite reactive to media engagement. It’s been lovely to be featured by the likes of the CNN, and BBC, and…
Jessica: Time‘s “30 Under 30."
Alexander: Yeah. We’ve had some lovely coverage, but we’re wondering how … we’ve got stories to tell, powerful stories of families being reunited, of people who’ve been pushed down, and who’ve suffered under the law and now having a hope for a future. How do we engage with the media more effectively and tell those stories? And things like organizing TEDx conferences in prisons have been interesting platforms for us to help to shift the narrative. I think that I am learning to slow down, and as one gains expertise on a particular area and understanding through experience, recognizing that not everyone is at the same stage of the journey as you, and patiently answering questions and building a cohort of people who can play that role of answering questions, educating others, stewarding interests, and bringing people with you.
“I think that I am learning to slow down … recognizing that not everyone is at the same stage of the journey as you, and patiently answering questions … educating others, stewarding interests, and bringing people with [me].” Alexander McClean on cultivating collaboration and inviting others to care.
And with some causes, it might be easier than others. I think that if I was working with orphans, although there are many adults and some children in prison who are orphans, or if I was looking after donkeys or preserving trees or plants or giraffes, life would be very much easier than working with people in prison. I think the need to tell stories, to be attentive to data, and have compelling evidence for the work that you do in our environment, whether it’s senior officials in the prison services we work with, saying, "Well, we think about 40% of the prisoners that we hold are innocent. Actually, we know that if you come in and train our prison officers and prisoners in law, we’ll see large numbers of people being released from prison, which contributes to decongestion.
That means we can focus our resources on those who really need to be here rather than those who are innocent," and being attentive to figures and being able to demonstrate that case, that in recent months, we’ve been seeing at least 250 people a month released from prison in Uganda and Kenya by the courts and send home having accessed legal support from us, and otherwise, they’d be languishing in prisons still. So, thinking about how you educate and inform, and transparency as well, and saying, "Well, actually, these are areas that were struggling with." First is thinking about how do we support those who get out of prison? How do we help them as they think about the next stage of their life? What’s the limit of what we can do as a small organization with limited resources? And thinking about what it looks like to go to scale as we receive invitations from around Africa and beyond, and trying to determine what can only be done by us, and what can be done by others, and how do we share the lessons that we’re learning. So, I think that that openness about what’s working and what’s not, and inviting people in to collaborate and dream could be very powerful.
Jessica: I think that’s excellent advice. I think often, especially when you are in the beginning of a journey of waking up to injustice, you can kind of go through a very judgmental phase, but you have such a beautiful humility and spirit of collaboration. And that is, absolutely, what it takes to run a sustainable organization that will lead to the transformation of prisons and justice, not only in Kenya and Uganda but do you have dreams for more countries or are you going to just focus on East Africa till the day you die?
Inspiring a Worldwide Movement for Sustainable Prison Reform
Alexander: No, we’re looking at what opportunities there are around Africa and around the world. We’re preparing to start working with women and children in prison in Khartoum, in Sudan, where one can be sentenced to death by hanging and stoning and crucifixion and where there’s flogging or people have had arms or legs cut off for theft in recent years. So, we want to be an organization that responds with courage to invitations to expand. We also think that there are lessons that wealthy countries can learn from poor ones. And in the U.K., we see it’s the case that poor people often end up in prison, and they are overrepresented compared to those with greater wealth.
I wonder what it looks like to bring lessons from Africa to the U.K. In about 10 days’ time, we’ve got a group of African prison officers, and a judge, and a probation officer arriving in the U.K. for three months to spend time in our courts and prisons sharing their experiences and learning from us. We think there are interesting opportunities for America to learn from the African experience, to think about the role that education can play in transforming prisoner’s lives. We have this growing cohort of graduates, many of whom went to prison when they couldn’t read or write, and their lives have been transformed in prison by education, and they’ve been put into a position where they’re able to transform their family, and to transform their community, and to transform their nations.
And we want to be generous in sharing the lessons that we’re learning in equipping other individuals and organizations to be involved in creating servant lawyers, and building communities of people that have lived experience of conflict with the law, who are then acquiring legal knowledge and skills to be involved in bringing justice to their community, but also asking questions at the highest levels about why our societies function as they do, why do we have the laws in place that we do? Who gets to be around the decision-making table when those are being crafted? And what works in prisons, we think could work in refugee camps or perhaps could work with prostitutes in a brothel or work in homeless shelters. Susan Chiguna, who was our first woman to get a law degree from the University of London, she started out studying on death row. During her time studying, she was the lead plaintiff in a case which got the mandatory death sentence in Uganda abolished. She graduated with her law degree as a free woman last year.
She said the African Prisons Project finds treasure in trash. And one of the things that we’ve learned is that all around us there is amazing potential. There are people with gifts and talents which our society just overlooks. And sometimes I think we might look at someone who’s homeless, or who’s a sex worker, who’s a refugee, and think that maybe this is the person who needs a handout from us, and we might feel pity for them, and they might end up in prison because of poor choices that they make.
“One of the things that we’ve learned is that all around us there is amazing potential. There are people with gifts and talents which our society just overlooks.” Alexander McClean
I think there are opportunities to say, "Well, these people have an experience. They have knowledge. They have gifts. They have talents. They have potential. And when that’s realized, it can transform the rest of our lives. They have rich attributes which can help our society to grow and to prosper." So, I think we should be slow to write people off. I think that we should give people chances to use their brains even when their lives have been characterized by difficulty or suffering. And I think that when we do so, we can be surprised by what happens. And we’re super proud to see prisoners and prison officers studying for a tough law degree with one of the world’s most respected universities, the first university in the U.K. to admit women. It has a long history, and we had a 95% pass rate in our exams in Kenya last summer. There’s amazing intellectual ability and legal potential in, perhaps, the least likely places. And I think that when we tap into that, then all of us benefit.
Jessica: Well, collaboration is your cornerstone, and that ultimate collaboration is to partner with your stakeholders and to actually see them as part of the solution. And I think that is what makes your organization so unique and what makes it scalable, obviously, but then also what makes it translatable to even other issues, which is what you touched upon. I think that’s just so powerful to … you know, we get our hearts broken by these situations that we hopefully, yes, we go to the field, we proximate ourselves among the poor and among the vulnerable, but then we have to see them as our partners. And that’s a slower model because we are driving results through people that had not had access to the same things we’ve had access to, but it’s a sustainable solution to the issues. And you are living that out in the most beautiful way. How can we become more involved in what you’re doing?
New Experiences and Transformations
Alexander: Thank you for your last comment. It’s a privilege for me to live the life that I do, and I’m being transformed as I go. And I think that that’s one of the beautiful things about proximity. It can give those of us who feel that we’ve had a nice education, or we have good jobs, or we have something to offer, we can be transformed. And I used to spend time in prison with people who’ve got abundant courage, tremendous compassion, amazing resilience, and boldness, who’ve gone through things that might cause me to doubt myself or to give up or to lose hope. But, in fact, they seem to have grown in love and generosity, and so I’m transformed by those interactions.
People support our work in many ways. One is by spreading the word, by giving me opportunities as you’re giving today to speak about it, and creating opportunities for ex-prisoners and other members of our community to go out and speak at conferences and at events to engage with the media. To say in these unexpected places there are brains that can move mountains, and there are people who are gradually turning the status quo on its head, you might say. The former vice president of Uganda said to me last year, "You’re creating a revolution. You might not live to see the results of it." And definitely, change takes time, but for us, it’s exciting to see people on the margins of society gradually transforming themselves and many others as they go. And so, opportunities to share stories of how we’re looking for support to grow our community.
In September of this year, we’d like to take on a new cohort of women and men to study for law degrees with the University of London, from prisons in Uganda and Kenya. It cost us in the region $15,000 to put someone through a law degree, but then that equips them for a lifetime of using the law to transform their communities and to serve countless hundreds of individuals. We’ve got a great pipeline of women and men who are academically able to study for a degree, who’ve been through our vetting process, who’ve got the recommendation of their peers and prisoners, people who are making a positive contribution to prison life. And we’re looking for those who might support them. And we’re looking for those who will make commitments to supporting us as an organization on an ongoing basis, we find that such commitments help us to plan, or who may want to give us one-off gifts to help us think about particular aspects of our growth and how we might respond to opportunities to expand into new prisons and to new countries.
We’re looking for volunteers. Volunteers play an important part in our work supporting our 50 or so paid members of staff. Many of our volunteers come from legal backgrounds, they are legal academics, and they are lawyers. We have those who support our administrative functions, those who work with us in relation to comms and marketing, and in various other ways. And, again, those volunteers, whether they come from Kenya or Uganda or from the U.K. or America or elsewhere, I think they learn lessons with us, and they grow and gets transformed during that time with us. And they return to their communities with a different perspective, and I think with a deep sense of belonging to a community that is working with passion to bring justice in unexpected places. And I think that that sense of belonging and being co-laborers and interdependence is one of the things that we celebrate as an organization.
Jessica: Thanks so much for tuning into today’s episode. Noonday Collection was actually able to give a donation to African Prisons Project, and I’m excited to go visit them later on in the month. If you’d like to follow along on my journey to Africa, I’m leaving in just a couple of weeks, go find me on Instagram. I do a lot of detailed Insta stories. I’m going to be in Rwanda with my son Jack as well as in Ethiopia and in Uganda. And I’d love to just take you with me. I’d love for you to be able to widen your circle of compassion and really take you behind the scenes to some of these really tenacious, amazing people.
Honestly, talking to Alexander got me even more excited about my trip. Follow along on Instagram @jessicahonegger—that’s 2 Gs and 1 N. And you can also find me at Facebook. Jessica Honegger is the name of my page. Thanks so much for joining me on today’s episode.
Today’s music is provided by my friend, Ellie Holcomb. The podcast was produced by Eddie Kaufholz, and I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.