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Law Classes Educate Inmates at Kenya's Langata Women's Prison

  • Gabe Joselow

At a women's prison in Nairobi, Kenyan inmates are taking the law into their own hands. Law classes have helped inmates launch their own appeals and defend themselves in court.

In a classroom behind bars, three inmates and a prison officer learn the basics of common law.

Inmate Rose Musyoki said these classes have given her the chance of a lifetime.

“It has been my childhood dream to do law, but due to some unavoidable circumstances like lack of finance, I've not been able to do it," said Musyoki. "So when this chance came in I gave it a trial, and now I'm in it, I'm doing it.”

Applied learning

And already, she's put her lessons into practice, successfully helping another inmate to appeal a sentence for kidnapping by arguing that the accused was under duress at the time.

“When she went there, the prosecution had nothing against her. They never even said anything, when she raised just that defense, the prosecution was asked, 'Do you have anything against her?' He said, 'No, your honor.' That was a big achievement,” said Musyoki.

Langata Women's Prison holds about 600 inmates, serving sentences ranging from a few days to life behind bars. Some are awaiting trial; others have exhausted their appeals.

Accustomed to being on the wrong side of the law, the prisoners get a new perspective through the education program.

Jane Ouma, for example, is serving a 14-year sentence for assaulting her husband's mistress.

She said if she knew then what she knows now, she could have done better than her own lawyer.

“I would have been in a much better position than when I got my lawyer -- he didn't turn up in court, he gave me a student lawyer who was just practicing law, and I feel I did not get the right representation,” Ouma said.

The program is the work of a non-profit group called the African Prisons Project. Students work toward a two-year diploma in common law from the University of London.

Jailhouse advocates

Then, when good legal advice is hard to come by, these jailhouse advocates can step in.

Sam Bryar, a consultant with the project, said, “They're not quite at the level where they're equivalent to a lawyer, but they're always going to be available and they're always going to be able to provide that kind of support. We think the impact at the end of the day is going to be substantially larger than if we took the funds that we have and put them into just bringing a lawyer in one day a week.”

Only a handful of inmates gain acceptance into the prison's education programs. Most spend their days in workshops. In one of them, for instance, inmates make handicrafts to be sold at the prison welfare office.

Some work in the kitchen to feed other inmates and staff. Corrections officers here say teaching these kinds of skills gives inmates something to do when they get out.

Education officer Jacqueline Onyango said learning the law also can keep people out of prison altogether.

“When people are more equipped with knowledge, there will be less people committing offenses, because most of them commit these offenses out of ignorance, and a more knowledgeable society is easier to deal with,” she said.

Many prisoners here say they are disillusioned with the Kenyan courts; but, as law students they have a chance to prove that a person is not powerless to challenge the system, just because she is behind bars.

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