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Founder of African Prisons Project shares insights on work

| Friday, September 7, 2018

Alexander McLean, founder of the African Prisons Project, discussed his mission of reforming the criminal justice system in eastern Africa at a lecture Thursday at the Hesburgh Center Auditorium.

McLean discussed the African Prisons Project’s work with members of eastern African prison communities. With a goal of improving the criminal justice system and empowering the poor, the African Prisons Project provides prisoners and prison staff with an education in law through the University of London.

“Regardless of what’s been done to you or what you have done to others, you are welcome here,” McLean said.

McLean said such vision helps bridge the gap between those who are privileged and capable of defending themselves, and those who are poor and uneducated in the prison system.

“What would it look like to take those who understand the power of the law because they lived it … and to give them high quality legal education that they can apply to themselves and people in their communities? It seems that lawyers are some of the people in society with the most agencies, and the prisoners the least,” McLean said.

During his lecture, McLean described what prompted him to get involved in such an effort. As a recent high school graduate, the founder traveled to Uganda to work for a hospice center.

McLean said seeing the lack of attention and medical care given to the impoverished members of the community helped him understand his calling in life.  

“There are people in this world whose lives are judged to have no value. … It was an amazing time of formation to me,” McLean said.

From his work at hospice, McLean began getting more and more exposure into the criminal justice system and visiting maximum security prisons in eastern Africa.

“In places where 80 or 90 percent of prisoners would never meet a lawyer — places where there are no juries — it didn’t seem like justice was guaranteed,” he said.

McLean, now a magistrate in the United Kingdom, expressed his realization that his love of law could be used to help the incarcerated.

“We believe we can all play a part in making or shaping or implementing the laws — regardless of what we have done or what others have done to us,” McLean said.

Through slideshows and informative videos, McLean shared various stories of prisoners and prison staff alike who graduated from the University of London as lawyers or paralegals.

One such story was of a prison guard named Jimmy Mtawa who is currently a second year law student at the University of London’s long-distance program, and who advises inmates on their legal situations.

McLean said the students from the African Prisons Project were amongst the top performers at the University of London in human rights law.

In addition to legal education programs, McLean spoke to the importance of creating more positive and safe environments in the prisons both for prison staffs and inmates themselves.

McLean discussed his theory that employee performance and quality of prisoner life will improve if the quality and dignity of  employee working conditions increase.

“If you give employees a dignified environment with the right tools and say the work they are doing is valuable, it motivates them and they will go the extra mile,” McLean said.

Improving health facilities, providing basic health training, founding libraries and literacy programs were among the programs McLean mentioned as a part of this project.

In addition to the actions and programs of the African Prisons Project, the founder emphasized the organization’s values of forgiveness for the past and looking foward the future.

“We believe that we all deserve a second chance,” McLean said.

McLean finished his presentation by encouraging his audience to spread this mission of the African Prisons Project throughout the world.

“If it’s possible in east Africa, isn’t possible here where you live too?” McLean said.

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