Bent Staples and Instant Coffee
Do you ever have a moment where you look around and think, “This. Is. Crazy."
I found myself thinking that last week as I was driven by Rogers and Geoffrey across the Ugandan countryside to retrieve some prisoners’ files that were left at our hotel (which, might I add, was still under construction while we stayed there.)
I laughed to myself in the car.
How did I get here.
8 weeks ago I was convinced the entire institution of adventuring was dead as I departed England, but thankfully, the world continues to amaze and surprise me. There is still much left on earth to get myself into, and Ugandan prisons happen to be one of those things.
A few months back, Jim Gash, family friend and law professor, invited my dad and I Pepperdine Law School’s Global Justice trip to Uganda. The trip was centered on rolling out a plea bargaining system in Ugandan prisons. My dad and I said yes to the trip, but I think I speak for both of us when I say we didn’t have a clue what we were in for.
A brief interlude on plea bargaining for everyone out there who hasn’t attended law school:
Plea bargaining is common practice in the American criminal justice system. In exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea, they receive an offer from the prosecutor and once an agreement is reached, the accused can begin serving the sentence instead of going to trial.
Until recently in Uganda, this idea was unheard of. Instead of having prisoners convicted, serving sentences and moved through the system, prisons around the country are full of stagnant, backlogged cases. Most prisoners are held on remand, they have never even met a lawyer, and they wait for years until their case is put on the list for trial. They sit and wait and stand around in their bright yellow prison clothes. For days and weeks and months and years. And they have no idea when the waiting will end.
We spent the last week in 4 different prisons meeting with prisoners to help end the endless waiting.
What a week it was.
Mbale. Tororo. Soroti. Lira.
Each one a prison too full of people, some who did some atrocious things, some who didn’t do anything worthy of years waiting inside barbed wire fences.
Prisons full of yellow shirts and pants and worn-out flip flops that drag along uneven ground.
Prisons of chipped paint and crumbling walls that bear the weight of the stories inside them.
Prisons that welcomed a group of American lawyers and law students and me.
We didn’t have it all together. We didn’t hear all the cases that ought to someday be heard. We didn’t solve every issue of injustice in the world. But we were part of the beginning, the birth of something new. Each day, we trudged through the clutter of new case files. We listened to stories and took pictures even when they told us we couldn’t. We introduced new ideas into a bogged-down system. It wasn’t always organized and we ate so much Ugandan food I can hardly bear the thought of it.
But across the Ugandan countryside, we moved our caravan of loosely organized chaos, teaching and learning as we went. We were held together by bent staples and instant coffee, hand sanitizer and borrowed toilet paper, makeshift office spaces and the world’s worst printer, stealthy photographs and thousands of bananas and the rich beauty of Africa’s Pearl.
We ended the week with a sunrise safari. In a glorious display of color and light, the sun marked another day beginning. And I think it’s fitting we ended with a beginning. More prisoners need advocates and a chance to be heard. The adventures aren't over and there are more stories to be listened to. There are more people and places in the world than I can wrap my head around.
It's all a little crazy, isn't it.