Giving prisoners a break

Alexander McLean, founder of African Prisons Project (APP)

On a gap year with a serious difference, Alexander McLean worked in a Ugandan Prison. Deeply disturbed yet hugely inspired, he went on to found an organisation which is redefining Africa’s approach to imprisonment. African Prisons Project (APP) ventures to where so many will not go. Based in Uganda but also working in Kenya, they are bringing education, healthcare, justice and rehabilitation to thousands of prisoners who would otherwise be ignored.

Alexander didn’t set out on a gap year to work with prisoners and was originally working on a volunteer project with Hospice Africa Uganda.[1] He worked for three months bathing, clothing and supporting people coming to the end of their lives in Kampala’s Mulago hospital and it was here that Alexander first met inmates from the local prisons.  Frequently dying from starvation and dehydration, prison patients were usually grossly maltreated by hospital staff and left to die without an ounce of dignity. Appalled by the fact that these people were treated no better than animals, Alexander made it his mission to see what prison life was like. After weeks of persistence (understandably the prison services were somewhat dubious of this unusual 18 year old), he was granted permission to visit death row at Kampala’s maximum security prison[2].

We’d hazard a guess that Alexander is the first gap year student to take a trip to death row and the very fact he did sums up what an incredible guy he is. Unsurprisingly, what he found wasn’t pretty. Living conditions were dire (over 300 people occupied a building built for 50), judicial rulings were questionable (inmates were condemned to death for crimes like kidnap, cowardice and treason) and the general wellbeing of prisoners was totally sidelined. Staff ruled by fear and the concept of rehabilitation didn’t exist. But despite all of this, Alexander found he was greeted with immense warmth by the inmates, many of whom were similar to him in age. Having opened the door on something that most people freely ignore, Alexander felt it was impossible to just walk away.

By this time Alexander had already well extended his trip to Uganda (he was only ever meant to stay for two weeks) and his parents were growing increasingly uncomfortable with his African adventures. “My parents did everything possible to try and stop me from going. They thought I was throwing my life away for nothing”, he told us. But, in his mind, his gap year was not complete. After a short trip back home to collect funds from the congregation at his local church, Alexander returned to the prison. With the help of inmates and staff, he refurbished the totally dilapidated health clinic. At this stage Alexander wasn’t thinking about the long term impact of his work and was blown away by the transformation this simple project made. Over the next year, there was a significant drop in the number of deaths at the prison.

This one project set the ball rolling for many more initiatives aimed at improving prison infrastructure. Whilst in his first year of studying law at the University of Nottingham, Alexander miraculously managed to raise the funds to go back to Uganda and build its first ever prison library. We first met Alexander while running our own volunteer project at Nottingham. Not the kind of student you meet every day, we were hugely impressed by him and donating a few books seemed like the least we could do to help.

The more work Alexander did, the more he saw what was possible. His reputation was growing and other countries became open to his work. During his second year at university he convinced his father to join him in Sierra Leone where they refurbished the cells at a children’s prison and then a few months later he took friends out to Kenya’s Kamiti Maximum Security Prison where they did up the sick bay and kitted out a library. Fast becoming a prison expert, he also ventured on a research trip to Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe where he found the same pervasive needs. “I saw that people in prison were keen to learn, they wanted an education and health services. But more than anything they wanted justice”, Alexander explained.

If you met Alexander your first guess might be that he’s a lawyer – he wears smart clothes and he’s the personification of articulate. But since graduating, law has been his part-time hobby and prison regeneration his full-time occupation.  By now working as a registered organisation known as Africans Prisons Project (APP), Alexander returned to Uganda in 2007 and soon realised that the provision of infrastructure, namely libraries and health clinics, was only the first step in delivering lasting change within prisons. To build on this APP developed a holistic repertoire of services for inmates. They now cover education (adult literacy classes and book clubs), healthcare (sports clubs and counselling), justice (workshops to support inmates through the court process) and re-integration (advice and guidance on services available once released).

“I’m not very good at planning”, Alexander admitted. As a result, APP’s strategy has emerged as Alexander has learnt more and more about what works and what doesn’t. One area which has sprung up as needing more attention is the integration of prison staff into APP’s activities. Interestingly, one of APP’s greatest challenges has been the attitude of prison staff who are naturally wary of APP’s approach and envious of the facilities being provided to prisoners. To combat this APP have deployed a range of effective strategies, including a great new resource centre which runs out of their Kampala head office. Specifically for prison staff, as well as ex-inmates, the centre offers a fully-stocked library, computer skills training and a weekend club for wives.

It was here at the resource centre that we met our prison guide, Frank.  Having lived on death row for many years, he was the perfect guy to give us a real insight into prison life and the impact of APP’s work.  A million miles away from being intimidating, Frank was softly spoken with a slight build and mottled grey hair. He had been sentenced to death for a fictional crime, designed to hide the fact that his ‘wrong doing’ was related to politics. For the first decade of his sentence there was no way for prisoners to appeal, but when Uganda abolished the mandatory death sentence in 2009[3], Frank set about clearing his name through the Court of Appeal. After 23 years on death row, he was released.

Since being let out Frank has returned to the condemned section of Luzira Prison every week as an APP staff member and it was a true privilege to join him on a visit.  Welcomed by prison staff and inmates alike, stepping onto death row was not one bit like we imagined. Yes, conditions were shocking but what was more overwhelming was the family atmosphere. A source of great wisdom, Frank explained that this community spirit comes from living among people who are all forced to accept their fate. Everyone we chatted to was brimming with warmth towards APP and spoke of Alexander as a brother. “Alexander is our friend, part of us in fact. He has done a lot for us”, shared the inmate who oversees the APP library. In a bustling courtyard filled with people playing board games, we found a score sheet pinned to the wall with the title ‘Sir McLean Draughts Tournament’.

The eagerness to learn displayed by most inmates was really striking, and thanks to APP, many have been able to really apply themselves, earning O-Levels, A-levels and even university qualifications whilst still inside.  Alexander lists APP’s educational feats among his proudest achievements and justly so. Thanks to a partnership between APP and the University of London, in 2011 55 inmates and prison staff applied to study for diplomas by correspondence from Uganda. Whilst on our tour of death row we met one of APP’s first university students, Patrick. Thrilled to be accepted onto an undergraduate course in law in 2010, Patrick is planning on using his new expertise to help prove his innocence in his forthcoming appeal case.

APP currently supports one third of the 35,000 inmates in Uganda and has already expanded its reach to Kenya, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.  The organisation has built a strong reputation for itself and as a result their services are in demand. Southern Sudan, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe have all invited APP to work in their prisons. Alexander is keen to take APP Africa-wide and is working on a standardised package of model services which would allow APP to offer the best of their facilities at a reasonable cost to more countries across the continent (and maybe even beyond).  Despite these grand plans for expansion, Alexander‘s ultimate vision is that APP will no longer need to work in these countries: “If we can establish model services … prisons will gain confidence in this new approach and then take it on for themselves.”

Realising this dream will require a long term commitment from APP. Most African countries have been running their prisons according to brutal rules and regulations for decades, if not centuries. Having now visited over 70 prisons across the world, Alexander also knows that changing the lives of people in prison isn’t straightforward. “There’s no simple answer, no quick fix”, he explained. That said, APP already seems to be shifting the mindset of the prison services. In recent years in Uganda, the government has started to provide support to selected prison schools and welfare officers are being introduced. Though nobody chose to credit APP with having influenced this, we felt sure there was a link.

APP is an exciting organisation. Most others doing hands-on work in prisons are small scale and have a religious foundation, whereas APP does not. What they’ve achieved already is groundbreaking and, should APP grow according to plan, they are on track to create a systemic shift in Africa’s approach to imprisonment. Alexander will be pushing this shift every step of the way. Since he started APP, he’s only ever received a small stipend and yet he’s not one bit deterred. In fact, he’s 100% dedicated to spending the rest of his life in this line of work.

For more information visit:

African Prisons Project: www.africanprisons.org

 [1] See http://www.hospiceafrica.or.ug/

[2] Uganda Prisons Service operate an open door policy that enables members of the public, human rights activists and investigators to visit prison premises.


 Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011