Paralegal training giving prisoners skills to defend themselves in court

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The prospect of spending the rest of your life behind bars is devastating, not just to you, but to your family. But those who have served time in prison, or are serving life sentences at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison say the experience is not all doom and gloom, and especially those who are lucky enough to undergo basic legal training.

The knowledge they acquire has enabled them to successfully represent themselves and their colleagues in court.

For instance, Mr Alloys Onyango, who is serving a life sentence for robbery with violence has helped several inmates secure their freedom.

“Prison is like a hospital. You don’t know when, but you can find yourself here anytime. However, I am delighted that many of our colleagues have won their freedom, says Onyango, who has formed an organisation, Prisoners Legal Reform Initiative, to help prisoners with matters their cases.

Many prisoners have benefited from the paralegal training in prison, thanks to the efforts of Kituo Cha Sheria, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), and London-based NGO African Prisons Project (APP), both of which offer paralegal training in several prisons across the country. In addition, APP offers a law degree.

The empowerment efforts have paid off, with the number of convicts successfully arguing their cases and getting acquitted increasing.

Mr Morris Kaberia, who was acquitted on September 20 this year after serving 13 years behind bars, says most of them have been able to use the legal knowledge they acquired to to prepare their defence, and also help those who cannot afford lawyers.

Those who have acquired the training invite fellow inmates, many of whom are illiterate and cannot afford a lawyer, to bring their cases forward so that they can discuss them and help them write submissions, which are presented in court as arguments for their cases.

For instance, after taking time to read and understand a given case, the trained paralegals, under the supervision of the APP lawyers, divide themselves into three groups representing the “prosecution”, “defence”, and “judges”.

They then hold a mock trial, during which the “prosecution” puts forward arguments against the accused’s appeal, countering what the “defence’s” arguments. This takes place as the client (convict) looks on.

Two “judges” record the proceedings, noting the arguments of both the prosecution and the defence, including the judgments and laws they use to support their positions.

“After the session, we all sit down and discuss the case as a defence team because we are dealing with the defence’s side,” explains Mr Kaberia, currently pursuing a University of London law programme run by APP.

They also analyse the submissions by the “defence” but also consider the counter arguments by the “prosecution” (fellow inmates) in order to come up with a final submission that addresses the gaps raised by the “prosecution”.

“That way, you find the appellant is well prepared for his appeal. One person is then given the notes to compile the final submission to be taken to court,” Mr Kaberia offers, adding that the mock trials have enabled them to register great success since the programme began.

The inmate who is to appear in court is also armed with possible answers to arguments likely to be raised by the lawyer from the DPP (prosecution) in court.

The records of their arguments in the group discussions are carefully kept for future reference.

Mr Onyango, a beneficiary of the Kituo cha Sheria paralegal training, says that, where it is felt the facts on the ground are incontestable, they look for a legal loophole, such as a procedure that was overlooked.

Mr Onyango, who lost his own appeal in the High Court, regrets having hired a city lawyer to represent him. He feels the outcome would have been different if he had represented himself. He has applied for resentencing, and the process has begun.

Mr John Mwangi, a beneficiary of the prison support system, says he was acquitted on September 26, 2016, after he represented himself in court with the materials his fellow inmates helped him prepare. He had been in Kamiti for four years, after being found guilty of robbery with violence.

Although he did not attend the legal training himself, his colleagues reviewed his file meticulously and prepared a solid defence for him, which sailed through when he appeared before the High Court.

“After filing my defence papers, my colleagues also told me what to go and say in court. I wrote those points in short form on a piece of paper in order not to forget them. That way, I could glance at them and expound them,” he said.

Before he was acquitted, Mr Mwangi was among those tasked with typing the final submissions of the different prisoners after they had been discussed and approved by the “prosecution”, “defence”, and “judges” at the prison. He was not allowed to add anything.

He has ventured into farming, which he supplements with small-time construction work. Kituo Cha Sheria and APP train both prisoners and prison officers.

APP operates in seven prisons in the country and has set up furnished legal aid clinics where they conduct the training. The beneficiaries help their colleagues.

Kituo Cha Sheria Programme Manager Faith Ochieng’ says they run their programmes in eight prisons, and that the prison justice centres are managed and run by trained prison paralegals to help prisoners represent themselves confidently in court, offer legal advice to the other inmates, educate them on criminal law and guide them and empower the entire prison community.

“Kituo has played a big role in supervising these centres and providing technical assistance on legal matters that need the attention of an advocate,” says Ms Ochieng’.

Kamiti is one of the three prisons, where APP has also introduced a legal education programme, where inmates and prison officers are sponsored to study for a University of London law degree through correspondence (for those who qualify). Full-time tutors visit the prisons to deliver the modules.

Those who qualify to pursue the law degree sit for exams sent by the university at the end of every semester. The exams are supervised by the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) or the British Council, which send them back for marking, after which the results are sent to the prisons.

Mr John Muthuri, a legal aid manager at APP, says that complex matters that the trained prisoners cannot handle on their own are referred to APP lawyers, who review the issues and support them from time to time.

APP has registered significant achievements in its prisons programme. Between January and June this year, 488 remandees and convicts were released from prison, 143 bail amounts reduced, 78 sentences reduced, 86 cases resolved through alternative mechanisms, and 64 missing files traced to court registries by APP personnel.

Records from Kituo Cha Sheria also show that between 2012 and last year, 1,591 appeals from Kamiti were allowed, and a further 136 referred for retrial by different courts. Many people have left the prisons since 2010 following interventions by Kituo’s trained paralegals.

Ms Ochieng’ says that, after getting the paralegal training, the prisoners can compare what they have learnt with the evidence the court used to convict them, as well as the witness statements in their cases.

“They analyse all these to be able to identify the gaps and if they do, they can use that to file their appeals and bring it to the attention of the court,” she added.

She added that there have been favourable outcomes where acquittals have been granted after evidence used against the convicts was to found to be weak or wanting. Others have had their sentences reduced.

“The prison justice centres have significantly contributed to decongesting prisons and at the same time made justice accessible to those who could not afford the services of an advocate,” said Ms Ochieng’.

Mr Kaberia is happy that he was a beneficiary of the team effort, and successfully defended himself before the Kiambu High Court on September 18, and got his judgment after two days, with the court ruling that he was not granted a fair trial.

Reports indicate that many of the judges who have had convicts represent themselves in court are impressed with the arguments and research involved, saying the approach has made the court’s work easier, and should be encouraged because it speeds up trials.

Although he is now a free man, Mr Kaberia, a fourth-year law student, intends to continue with the course and, hopefully, complete it in May 2019.

By Kenyan Digest

The Kenyan Digest Team