I am terrified of being with former death-row prisoner Susan Kigula. This is because she qualified for her driving licence only quite recently, after 16 years in Luzira maximum security prison, and she drives like a maniac on Uganda’s roads.
From behind the wheel Susan tells me she was sentenced to death for murdering her boyfriend. Her conviction was based partly on the witness testimony of a four-year-old child and she denies committing the crime. Her cell for five inmates in Luzira’s Condemned section, notorious from Idi Amin’s days, was very cramped with no beds, a bucket for a loo, no window — only an air vent — and a light bulb burning dimly from lock-up at 3 p.m. until 9 each morning.
In 2005 Susan met a young Englishman, Alexander McLean, who had the previous year gained access to Luzira after volunteering in a Kampala hospice. Among the dying, he tended inmates from Luzira, shunned by doctors as they rotted in their own filth, their wounds crawling with maggots. McLean was a law undergraduate at Nottingham University, where he raised funds to refurbish Luzira’s prison hospital during his holidays. With his help a CD of haunting death-row music, Condemned Choirs, was released and he collected 7,000 books to establish a jail library.
Most women inmates were illiterate or, like Susan, school dropouts, but to pass the time she discovered books. ‘I read anything.’ By herself she began studying for her secondary school exams while her cell mates slumbered. During the days, between slopping out, washing, praying and prison meals, ‘come rain, shine or dusty’, Susan read beneath a tree in the exercise yard. In 2009 her exam results were among the best in Uganda.
Having set up a UK charity, the African Prisons Project, McLean persuaded authorities in Uganda and later Kenya’s Kamiti Maximum Security prison to let him support bright prisoners, and also their warders, to study for London university’s distance-learning law degree. McLean learned from people like Luzira’s hangman — who smashed in skulls with a hammer to hasten death after the drop — that many of its inmates were victims of miscarriages of justice.
At first London university was sceptical that Susan could handle the course, but McLean secured her a scholarship to start with a diploma. It was hard with no internet or teachers. Coursework arrived haphazardly by DHL with guide notes from distant tutors, but she passed with high marks. She also devoted time to advising women inmates on their cases.
‘Most of the ladies in prison did not deserve to be there, but they were too poor to employ lawyers to represent them. It’s the rich who get justice even when they are not entitled to it. The poor suffer injustice because they can’t buy it.’
From inside her death-row cell, Susan brought a case together with 417 others against Uganda’s attorney general to abolish capital punishment. The Supreme Court rejected this but ruled that the death penalty was no longer mandatory for murder. After three years, death sentences were automatically commuted to life. Resentencing followed and today only 27 out of Susan’s 418 are still in jail.
In 2016, Susan walked out of Luzira’s gates. She then graduated with her London bachelor’s degree and began efforts to challenge legal restrictions that prevent ex-convicts from qualifying as lawyers in Uganda. She is determined to see the complete abolition of the death penalty in Uganda, where last year President Yoweri Museveni was still promising to ‘hang a few’.
APP has now supported dozens of Ugandan and Kenyan prisoner students to take the distance-learning law degree. Surprisingly, McLean says that overcrowding in African prisons encourages innovation, while poverty makes students resourceful, proving ‘they can pass with higher than average results’. His belief that the prison experience is a ‘refiner’s fire’ makes the experience
a qualification, not a handicap.
McLean’s charity exists off private donations, with input from UK law firms and university academics. APP pays for university fees and helps in other ways — supplying torches for studying in poorly lit cells, or finding extra food ahead of examinations.
‘We are always two months away from running out of money,’ he says. His ultimate aim is to move APP from being a charity to becoming a ‘prison-based law firm’ staffed by his students. ‘We’re a team who have killed, raped, tortured and also been wrongly convicted for crimes.’ He wants to create a ‘cohort of servant lawyers for the poor’.
His law students are required to be on hand to give legal advice to inmates — and one of the core priorities is helping with appeals against convictions. Miscarriages of justice aside, there are laws he feels are unjust, such as the stiff sentences for attempting suicide.
McLean is a remarkable Englishman whose APP charity has helped bring redemption to East Africa’s prisons and Susan has an extraordinary story too — even though her driving scares the hell out of me.