Agence France-Presse

Justice, one tap at a time

Updated:

KISUMU, Kenya — The men in this classroom are friendly. They laugh and joke as they weave new ways to write appeals, rattling off quotes from the Kenya Law Report that they painstakingly copy down by hand.

The two advocates from Christian Legal Education Aid and Research (CLEAR), who lead this class of aspiring paralegals, stop and think if anyone has ever used this defense in an appeal before. These students are sharp, every one a prisoner here in Kisumu.

One man is particularly inspired in his battle to win an appeal against his charge of robbery with violence, a capitol offense in Kenya. He devours every newspaper or case file he can, searching for everything that could help him or his fellow prisoners get free. He meets weekly, sometimes even daily, with other prisoners interested in legal debate and discussion, in addition to the biweekly class with CLEAR.

The class teaches prisoners and prison officers to function as paralegals, proficient in drafting appeals. These issues are paramount to helping prisoners get justice for their cases.

Peter Onyango, an advocate based in Kisumu, leads the class with scholarly style. He treats the prisoners as university students, not victims and perpetrators. He reviews the last class. He doesn’t let anyone off easy and presses for more thought and debate as they work to become empowered prisoners.

The prison office is a textbook photograph of colonialism in Africa. Three officers sit around desks with piles and piles of handwritten papers. There are no computers. There isn’t even electricity. All light comes from one small high barred window. Amid one of the largest piles of papers sits a derelict typewriter donated by a local non-governmental organization to the prison to help teach English to prisoners.

Almost every single appeal at the prison goes through this one typewriter, and there are hundreds of appeals in progress, each needing seven copies. The problems with this system started a few months back when the prison documentation office’s original typewriter broke down, paralyzing all appeals. This breakdown required many litigants to seek special permission to file an appeal after the 14-day deadline.

The office had to borrow the only other typewriter in the entire prison so that the one man who types every appeal could get back to work.

The officer says it takes him 30 minutes to do a single page of an appeal. Editing and translating prisoner’s handwriting takes time. The typing becomes a mammoth task on top of his other officer duties.

The problem with justice for these prisoners is not corrupt prison officers or even corrupt judges or magistrates. Instead it all comes down to simple economics: A small investment in a computer and printer could help stop the huge systematic failure plaguing the appeal process at this prison.

This prison was built 50 years ago for a much smaller population. Prisoners sleep seven in a room that is just large enough for two small cots. Prisoners serving for capitol offenses are kept together in a confined area and are rarely allowed out. For many of the students, this class is the one source of hope that keeps life and their future of their case manageable.

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.

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