Justice Defenders: bringing dignity and hope to prisoners

The problem

Of those held in Uganda and Kenya’s prisons, 60% are awaiting trial, as they have no access to a lawyer. They’re denied a voice due to poverty. This means chronic overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that have a debilitating impact on prisoners, long after they leave.

The solution

Justice Defenders helps the most vulnerable by providing access to quality legal services and legal training within prison. 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.

Empowering those in prison to use the law to bring justice, dignity and hope.

The impact

Thousands of prisoners supported

In 2017 alone, more than 2,000 prisoners were given legal support, while over 50,000 were educated on legal processes and the human rights they are entitled to. Justice Defenders' students have provided legal services leading to the release of more than 3,000 men and women – simultaneously creating a brighter future for those released, as well as the budding lawyers who supported them.

Alexander McLean

Founder and Director General, Justice Defenders

“Don’t be scared to follow your dreams.” Alexander McLean

How did it all start?

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 it's original name the '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. Our experience leads us to agree with social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who said: ‘Too often the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice.’


What was your greatest challenge?

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. We can say 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’s been your greatest achievement?

The officer in charge of Kamiti Prison in Kenya said to me in early 2017: ‘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, his words of encouragement and enthusiasm affected me deeply.

What’s next for your project?

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, law-makers and practitioners from across the world. The first Justice Defenders law firm will be staffed by our students, supervised by experienced, practising lawyers. And by 2020, our services will support the release of 30,000 men and women, otherwise unable to see justice served.


What top three things helped your venture succeed?

Faith. Without unshakable faith, I would have fallen at the first few hurdles and the first doors slammed in my face.

Team. Finding dedicated people prepared to go the extra mile for others is key. And because meeting regularly isn’t easy, 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.

Money. 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. But it continues to be an unrelenting challenge.

Working together to make a difference

What stands out for us is the compassion that sits at the heart of The Justice Defenders' work. Alexander and his colleagues truly strive for greatness in the service of those who need their help. We’ve been able to help them with a project that supports the health and well-being of children in a prison in Uganda, a project that will bring hope and support to many people.

The team not only helped us to start thinking about our own mentoring offer, but their insights have been incredibly helpful in shaping our values.


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