Education & Employability
Justice Defenders: Defending the defenceless
"Our vision is to establish the world’s first prison law school and law firm, equipping more people with the knowledge and leadership skills necessary to change the criminal justice system from within."
Alexander McLean, founder of Justice Defenders
Alexander McLean founded Justice Defenders (formerly African Prisons Project) in 2007 after witnessing the poor conditions that those serving time in prison across Uganda and Kenya were subject to. Many of the prisoners had not had access to a fair trial, and were serving long sentences for petty crimes, or acts they had not even committed.
Continued research showed Alexander that around the world there was, and still is, a global justice crisis. Currently, the lack of access to justice impacts 5.1 billion people worldwide – with effects on families, communities, and society at large. Today, three million men, women, and children are being held in overcrowded prisons without a trial.
As well as providing prisoners with better facilities and living conditions, Justice Defenders branched out to combat the lack of justice Alexander had witnessed first-hand. The organisation also works to train paralegals and lawyers within defenseless communities to equip individuals in providing legal services for themselves and others.
Support from QCT has helped Justice Defenders to embark on their new strategic direction and rebranding work, building on their delivery of support in prisons as African Prisons Project to include further work on the promotion of justice and legal support. This enhanced brand strategy will allow the organisation to grow their impact by scaling up their efforts to support even more prisoners across Africa.
Continue reading to learn more about Justice Defenders, and hear from Alexander himself in the Q&A and video below.
Justice Defenders works towards SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
10 million people are currently in prisons around the world. In Kenya, 4 out of 5 prisoners won’t ever meet an attorney – not even during their hearing. In Uganda, prisons have an occupancy level of nearly 300%. For those who come into conflict with the law, a disproportionate number do so due to reasons of poverty.
Justice Defenders equips justice defenders to facilitate a fair legal process through legal education, training and practice. It aims to establish the world’s first prison-based legal college and law firm, and create systemic change that means everyone, rich or poor, has equitable access to justice.
In 2019, 300 paralegals conducted 1,800 legal awareness sessions in nearly 40 prisons. 12,000 prisoners received direct legal support, and students studying law at the University of London achieved a 91% pass rate. By 2030, one million people in conflict with the law will gain access to a fair hearing.
"Working with The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust has been instrumental to growth – for me as a leader and our organisation. More than just a funder, QCT has become a platform for us to connect with other leaders and tell our story to the world."
Alexander McLean, founder of Justice Defenders
Getting to know Alexander McLean
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Alexander McLean and I am the Founder and Director General of Justice Defenders. Having trained as a barrister and magistrate, I’m passionate about justice. During my gap year travels to East Africa, we fundraised to provide better health facilities, and educate Ugandan inmates about the law. After graduating from the University of Nottingham in 2007 I moved to Kampala where we created a team of local and international staff and volunteers to develop the work of what became African Prisons Project, and is now Justice Defenders.
Why did you decide to work in this area?
A hesitant, bumbling attempt to try and show compassion led to my life being transformed by a man I encountered as a teenager. We met almost 14 years ago on the floor of Ward 4B of Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda. I don’t know his name. When I met him, he had been lying comatose on the floor of the hospice on a plastic sheet in a pool of urine. He had lain 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 – he was placed in a mass grave on top of others with no family to bury them. This man showed me there are people whose lives are judged to have no value by their community or by governments. The experience was deeply formative for me.
In 2007, I registered Justice Defenders under its original name, African Prisons Project, as a UK charity. Our first years were spent bathing dying prisoners, establishing prison clinics and running prison education programmes. But over time we felt compelled to address the stark lack of justice available to the poor and vulnerable.
What were your first steps to get the project off the ground?
Seeing how poorly the most vulnerable prisoners were treated, I visited Uganda’s maximum-security prison. It was built for 600 prisoners but now holds almost 4,000. I visited death row which held 10x as many as it was built for, and was told of people sentenced to death for using pen knives to steal mangos from their neighbours’ mango trees. I visited the prison hospital and watched a teenage boy die in a stinking, dehumanizing environment. I returned to the UK and raised funds from my school, church, family and friends. I returned to Kampala and visited every hotel asking for bed sheets, mattresses and blankets, and asked paint companies to donate paint. I worked with prisoners and prisons staff to refurbish that prison hospital.
What challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
The greatest challenge has been to contest the notion that pervades our communities that prisoners are ‘other’; that they threaten our safety and are people against whom we must defend ourselves. We cannot say this challenge has been overcome. What we can say is that we are making steady progress and that many have joined our quest to give a voice to men, women and children held behind prison walls.
What has been your proudest moment within this work?
In early 2017, the officer in charge of Kamiti Prison in Kenya told me: “120 of my inmates were released by the courts on appeal last year, having previously been sentenced to death or many years in prison. Of these, 80 had their appeals prepared by Justice Defenders prisoners and prison staff studying law. Your students are more effective at getting people out of my prison than paid, qualified lawyers. Now that these students are starting to complete their law degrees, we need to see them studying for the Bar from prison.” When I consider the challenges we had to overcome to establish this work, hearing his words of encouragement and enthusiasm affected me profoundly.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt?
That in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.
What are your future goals for Justice Defenders?
Our vision is to establish the world’s first prison law school and law firm, equipping more people with the knowledge and leadership skills necessary to change the criminal justice system from within.
By 2020, we aim to establish a college providing a range of qualifications, partnering with leading universities and welcoming professors, lawmakers and practitioners from across the world. The first Justice Defenders law firm will be staffed by our students, supervised by experienced, practicing lawyers. By 2020, our services will support the release of 30,000 men and women, otherwise unable to see justice served.
Why do you think it’s important for young people to be equal partners in driving change in the world?
Whilst we have the extraordinary privilege of saying the power of the law is in our hands, it doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to everyone. Anyone should have access to the power of the law. You have an amazing opportunity to make that happen. If you have an inkling that you might have a role to play with your life in using the law as a tool for liberation and transformation, I urge you to take steps now. Have experiences, volunteer with organisations that share your values. Even though you may be young and inexperienced, I know first-hand that youthful conviction, and naivety can be a source of change and hope in unlikely places, even if others write us off for our youth, lack of resources or the colour of our skin.
What are your top 3 tips for young people who have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started?
1. Have faith. Without unshakable faith, I would have fallen at the first few hurdles when doors were slammed in my face.
2. Build and maintain a strong team. Finding dedicated people prepared to go the extra mile for others is key. As we all know, meeting regularly isn’t easy, and so particularly as we grow, each year a week-long retreat allows us to share successes, reflect on failures and encourage good working relationships and a strong team focus.
3. Factor fundraising into your plans. In the early days, I began raising funds on a small scale with the help of family and friends. Once we were a registered charity, it became easier to approach trusts and foundations, although it continues to be an unrelenting challenge.
What does working with QCT mean to you?
Working with The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust over the years has been instrumental to growth – for me as a leader and our organisation. More than just a funder, QCT has become a platform for us to connect with other leaders and tell our story to the world.
Article updated: September 2020
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