Kenyan Pete Ouko was convicted of murder, but has gone on to achieve a law diploma despite living behind bars
He has helped fellow inmates with their own cases, giving pro-bono advice
Ouko has started an anti-crime initiative which will have a presence in all 119 of Kenya's prisons
Editor’s Note: Pete Ouko is an inmate at Kamiti prison, Nairobi, and the first Kenyan prisoner to achieve a Diploma in Law from the University of London. He was convicted in 2001 of the murder of his wife. He is one of the founders of Crime Si Poa, an anti-crime advocacy group, and spoke at TEDxKamitiPrison in 2015. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
My name is Pete Ouko and I am the first Kenyan inmate to graduate with a Diploma in Law from the University of London.
It did not come easy though.
I achieved this despite initially being locked up 23 hours a day in a cramped death row cell with only 30 minutes, if at all, allowed outside. I had no tutorial support and there were detractors – I even got my books late. But impediments did not make me lose hope.
Studying from behind bars
My incarceration motivated me to pursue law.
Being sentenced to the gallows after a unanimous “not guilty” from the jury can be one of the most traumatizing experiences one could ever go through in life. But for me, it did not shatter my dreams, make me lose faith in justice or reduce me to a state of helplessness. I had read about the work of Innocence Project in the USA and knew that such things could happen.
I rejoined class with the support of the African Prisons Project (APP), 25 years after my last lesson. Having seen the benefits of studying law, I requested Alexander Maclean, APP Director, to help enroll more inmates and staff to the course and many are now students in prisons in Kenya and Uganda under APP support.
My story has been great motivation not only for my fellow inmates, but also to the public and my son and daughter, who will be graduating with degrees in electrical engineering and law respectively.
I am now pursuing my law degree, also at the University of London. Studying behind bars means I have to balance numerous court trips, writing appeals pro-bono for my colleagues and advising them on how to make their presentations in court. Being the most qualified “lawyer” amongst two thousand inmates can be daunting but with the paralegal team, we are seeing a big success rate.
A Kenyan who watched my graduation on TV visited and requested that I draft for him a petition seeking compensation from his Chinese employers who had let their dogs bite him.
Seeing him come back to tell me he had been awarded a sum of $10,000 was proof that the education we get from University of London through APP was helping not only inmates, but also poor Kenyans to defend their rights.
Affecting social change
To paraphrase John F Kennedy, I continue asking myself not what my country has done for me but rather what I could do to make it safer.
Seventy percent of inmates in Kenya are youth who have wasted their lives in crime without knowing the consequences. This moved two of my colleagues and I to form an advocacy and awareness group called Crime Si Poa (Crime Is Not Cool) whose remit is to advocate against crime, fear of crime and activities that threaten peace.
My initial fear of how to get the public and law enforcement agencies to embrace a concept championed by inmates and ex-inmates has largely dissipated, as we have moved to build a people-centric Crime Si Poa lifestyle owned by actively participating communities.
We use a bottom-up approach with the full support and participation of law enforcement agencies.
The biggest revelation in passing the anti-crime message has been the social media where we put up timely crime advisories, alerts and updates to the public based on real life experiences both of the victims as well as the perpetrators.
We aim to get 10%, and indeed encourage the country’s population of 43 million, plus visitors, to “like” these pages, as knowledge and prevention will help the country pre-empt and solve crime.
We use clean-ups and sport as mobilization tools; shoot infomercials and documentaries in which reformed inmates speak out to society on why crime does not pay.
Despite relying fully on volunteers and friends for support, we have already had impactful interventions in crime hotspots in our country.
Our anchor partner, the Kenya Prisons Service has since granted us a permit to start resource centers in all of the country’s 119 prisons, while others like the Sarakasi Trust have not only graciously provided us with office space and internet connections, but also train the youth, both within and outside of prison, on life skills which they can use to keep them productive and out of crime.
I face challenges every waking day. I am motivated by the words of Martin Luther King Jnr: that “the hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined non-conformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
I am doing my part championing a crime free nation and world from behind bars, while proving the power of education to transform society.