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From behind bars, these prisoners spread freedom

8 Dec

From behind bars, these prisoners spread freedom

Life in prison shatters hope, dreams, dignity and beauty. It drains the spirit and humanity out of a convict.

In jail inmates are treated like beasts, and if one day they get out, they bear forever the prison curse on their forehead.

Whether guilty or innocent, resentful or remorseful, society turns them into neo-Cains.

In 1994, Morgan Freeman performed a majestic role in one of the best dramas ever produced by Hollywood, “The Shawshank Redemption”. Freeman, acting as Red, a convicted murderer, says to the parole officer, who had repeatedly denied his pardon pleas:

“there’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, but because you think I should be. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that.”

For Red, “the first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

Jail holds a mysterious power over the destiny of its victims, those who have the terrible misfortune of falling into its claws. It turns human beings into beasts or saints, for nobody can go through it and remain the same.

In jail, time is torture, it is a time to reflect, to ask for pardon or cry for justice, to show compassion and mercy. Patience and hope are the only means to remain sane.


Susan Kigula was 21 when she was sentenced to death in Uganda. Peter Ouko was in his mid-twenties when he landed in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, and Thomas Harum Nyandoro was a young carpenter when he found himself being tortured at a police cell in Kisii.

Susan, Peter and Thomas, who were convicted and sentenced to death, all spent more than 20 years in jail. I met Susan for the first time at Langata Women’s Prison, where she was attending the inauguration of a library for the inmates. Susan is now a free woman and a lawyer.

She became one of the pioneers of the African Prisons Project (APP) leadership programme. There, she led a successful ground-breaking challenge on the constitutionality of the mandatory death sentence, taking into account mitigating circumstances, in the case of Susan Kigula and 416 Others v. Uganda, filed initially in Uganda’s Constitutional Court in 2006. The appeal was heard at the Supreme Court of Uganda in 2009.

Susan studied law while in jail by distance learning as an APP student. She first finished her secondary school and then proceeded to do a Common-Law Diploma and, finally, graduated with a law degree (LL.B.) from the University of London.

While still in jail, Susan opened amazing horizons to the most dejected and marginalised women in our society, the woman prisoner. She set up a school for her inmates, becoming both a student and teacher, for prisoners and wardens alike.

She fully embraced her student life afforded by APP and the University of London under its international programmes, taking part in mock trials and moot court competitions.

This helped her and her classmates build their confidence and capacity to present persuasive, logical and structured legal arguments before a critical audience.

As a litigant, Susan successfully raised before the Supreme Court, the highest Court in Uganda, issues of the unconstitutionality of the death sentence imposed on her and others.

The court revisited her sentence, to a term of 20 years. Further remission and commutation of time already served led to her final release in January 2016.

Susan’s passion for study, hope and change has already made a deep impact on the life of many. More than 400 other inmates have benefited from the ruling in her case, in Uganda and beyond.


In 2016, Wilson Harling Kinyua, another APP student, and 11 others led a similar petition in Kenya’s Constitutional Court. Kinyua’s two-hour address led to a deep change in the perception and imposition of the mandatory death penalty in Kenya.

Kinyua had gathered his courage, determination and knowledge from his legal studies under APP’s programme as well as Susan’s petition to the Ugandan Supreme Court, to bring an immortal legacy to thousands of inmates on death row in Kenya.

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