31/01/2017 11:21 GMT | Updated 31/01/2018 05:12 GMT

Empowering Prisoners In Africa Through Legal Education

Prisoners studying law at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Kenya - Nate Mook

Too often it is the poorest, least educated and most vulnerable who find themselves in prison. Across Africa, there are some inmates who will never meet a lawyer. They are crammed into facilities, some operating at 300% capacity.

Nelson Mandela once said, "no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails."

Over the past 10 years, I've visited prisons all around Africa, where the majority of prisoners are still awaiting trial. Prison is an environment totally alien to most people. For those who are suddenly taken from their village and community, it is a shocking encounter with an overwhelming and impersonal system.

Whilst the law is in place to ensure access to justice and uphold basic human rights, poverty and ignorance often mean the accused have no voice within that system.

Lawyers can speak for those who are otherwise silent. They defend our most fundamental rights. If a prisoner has access to the law, the difference can be life-changing. It can keep someone from having their children taken away, from losing their home and livelihood, or even free someone from the death penalty.

But with so much overcrowding and without financial means to employ a lawyer, too many remain in prison for too long, just waiting for their day in court. I wondered what would happen if we offered prisoners the chance to fight for their own rights and study for a legal qualification themselves.

African Prisons Project was born out of my gap year in Uganda, working first in hospitals and then in prisons. As an 18 year old volunteering in a hospital in Kampala, I visited a group of prisoners in Luzira Upper Prison Uganda. Shocked by the conditions of the prisoners, I returned to the UK, raised money and support, and headed back to Africa. With that support, I was able to start something transformative that continues today. Our remit then, as it is now, was to bring dignity and hope to men, women and children in African prisons ensuring equitable access to justice, health and education.

In Uganda, we saw that it was normal for prisoners to be involved in running prisons: the prison schools were run by inmates and they provided much of the care in prison medical facilities. So we considered the possibility that they could receive a legal education, complemented with a practical knowledge of how the legal system runs in their country.

I knew a distance-learning course was possible, as I'd studied for my Masters with the University of London while based in Kampala. But what would happen if we offered prisoners the chance to study for a legal qualification with a leading university -- combined with support from local lawyers?

In 2011, we took applications from prisoners in Uganda to study law at the University of London. From one maximum-security prison, we had more than 150 applicants and took on nine students. Now we have a total of 63 students.

Whilst our students' resources are very limited -- some of them study without the Internet, electricity or adequate sanitation -- their determination, commitment and ambition allow them to do remarkable things. Educating people in prison enables them to become changemakers who have a positive impact on their communities. It provides access to justice to some of the most vulnerable in society.

Susan, our only female student, played a role in getting her own death sentence overturned only a few months after starting her legal studies. She's one of our best-performing students, nearly attaining a first-class result in the human rights module. Susan was released from prison in early 2016, she has since completed her LLB Law Degree and is now acting as an ambassador for APP, speaking at conferences and advocating for the abolition of the death penalty.

At one prison, we trained three prison staff who helped to release 40 prisoners on bail within three months. That's 40 people the prison won't have to feed and who can go back to their families and communities. Imagine the impact it could have if every single prison warden were given this legal training.

Maybe I'm idealistic about the transformative potential of education in prison, but I've seen firsthand that these are still places where lives can truly be changed.

APP is the focus on an episode of Rebel Education on Al Jazeera on 6 February 2017 at 2230 GMT, which looks at education opportunities that go against mainstream ideals.