By Caroline Katana
Austria Embassy in partnership with Kituo cha Sheria and Kenya Prison Services have commissioned a Paralegal Justice Centre at Shimo la Tewa Women Maximum Prison in Mombasa county.
The centre creates space for inmates to be trained as paralegals so as to offer legal advices to other inmates who are not able to articulate their issues pertaining to their cases, understand court procedures, get skills/knowledge and empowerment to stand in court and defend themselves.
A study indicates that some inmates serve in prison sentences due to lack of basic courts’ processes or poor representation.
Australian ambassador Dr Christian Fellner, speaking to journalists after the opening ceremony, said the centre would provide privacy for the paralegals and their clients.
“In order to ensure effective services and confidentiality for inmates, physical
infrastructure is important to deal with experiences of psychological stress or depression,” he said.
The ambassador added that freedom of expression would be guaranteed at the centre to ensure justice was availed to the women prisoners.
“Prison is not there to punish those who should not be punished. They are not enemies of the society and instead should be treated fairly because they might not have committed crimes but because they fail to defend themselves clearly they found themselves in prison.”
The ambassador said the Europen union had set aside more than Ksh5 billion (euro 35 million) to support Kenyan legal system while the embassy supported projects particularly in gender area.
Saying poor representation was a global issue, Dr.Fellner poor people suffered in prison because of rich people commit crime but they have smart lawyers to represent them legally in court.
“Getting help from others is not easy and many people fall into trouble because they don’t look for help. So, it is good especially for women to try to find help from people who have basic legal knowledge to assist them.”
Acvording to Dr Fellner the Kenyan government had achieved development in legal system.
“If I look at Kenya and Africa, it’s very positive. It’s going in the right direction and it’s growing faster than in Europe. What we did for 200 years, you have done it only in 60 years after independence! There is a space for development in Kenya and also in my country Australia so in that context we can work together and learn from each other.”
Kenya Prison Services deputy commissioner general Florence Omundi Momanyi says Shimo la Tewa women prison has 106 women prisoners and six children to date though this number fluctuate on daily basis.
According to her the Paralegal Justice Centre has children’s
facility within it for play when their mothers are being trained as paralegals by a paralegal officer or fellow inmates.
The commissioner expressed disappointment that accessing to legal aid or a lawyer to the majority of women prisoners was a big challenge facing them.
“Generally, women are marginalised and poor. In fact, a majority of them cannot afford to get even a relative to assist them or afford legal fee. Women prisoners in this facility come from the Coast region and you can imagine how they are marginalised economically, therefore, this facility brings justice closer to them and addresses their vulnerability in the region,” she said.
In her view, it is very important for women serving life sentences to get help so as to navigate the court system and understand what happens in other countries.
Through research and best practices in other countries, the commissioner, said this could be used to help the local prisoners hang on even when there was no hope of getting justice.
However, she warned women to avoid engaging in situations that would make them get arrested and serve sentences in prisons.
“Women have a divine calling so please before doing anything think about the children you are taking care off, don’t serve sentences with children in prison.”
Kituo cha Sheria executive director Annette Mbogo said the programme would be successful since 90 inmates have been trained as paralegals between 2019 and 2022 with 83 discharged.
“This program has been running from 2007, but it was started at Shimo la Tewa men prison in 2011 so we felt that we need to extend to women wing and this has allowed many women to be trained and leave prison after the training because they have skills and knowledge to defend themselves in court.”
According to her the paralegal justice centre program also aims at reducing congestion in prisons.
“The correctional department is excited about improving of this centre for the prison so that we are able to jointly promote access to justice and in doing so we are reducing the population for prisons. We all know that the population is very high and it’s, in fact, double of what the facilities can maintain. So, if inmates are released, it helps Kenya Prison Service and it helps people access justice and the society is made equitable.”
For the principal magistrate of Shanzu Law Court, Yusuf Abdallah Shikanda, the program will bring speedy resolution of cases there.
“Most of the time, cases in court move with slow speed because those appearing here cannot understand the court proceedings. But once they are empowered, they will be free to defend themselves and ensure court have the right records to avail justice.”
The magistrate noted that legal illiteracy was a major impediment and challenge facing those who appear before him.
“Many cases fail to proceed because of language barriers. Most of the cases in court are recorded in English which is a big challenge to those who do not have interpreters or lawyers to assist, thus, denied justice in the process.”
According to Shikanda this project is among many systems that need to be implemented in other courts in Kenya.