Transcript

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people to describe their passions.

Tonight, we hear from British activist and attorney Alexander McLean. He is the founder of the Ugandan-based African Prisons Project, which seeks to improve the lives of people imprisoned in Africa.

ALEXANDER MCLEAN, Activist and Lawyer: I think that, with any of us, if the world knew the thing about us we are most ashamed of, and that's all that they knew, and that's all that they were interested in, society would lose out, because each of us has much more to offer than the worst thing we have done.

I have been working in prisons in Uganda since I was 18, spending a lot of time on death row, growing up with many of the death row inmates. They have become like family to me.

I have spent time in about 130 prisons all over the world. I have seen that they're filled with people who are poor and not educated, and not connected.

When I was 19, I first visited the women's prison in Kampala, Uganda's capital. That's where many women were on death row. Often, they were there for killing a husband. Uganda has some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, and, sometimes, when a woman fights back, she will find herself on death row.

That time I met Susan, she was sentenced to death for killing her husband when she was 21. She shared her cell designed for one person with three other women. She started a school on death row. She established a choir. She was a lead in the prison church.

I saw that Susan was transforming her community from the inside out. The African Prisons Project got her admitted into the University of London in 2011 to study for a law degree by correspondence, as Nelson Mandela had done from prison in South Africa.

So,Susan was one of the University of London's best students in human rights law. She established a legal aid clinic in her prison, helping scores of her fellow inmates to be released from prison. She led a case, Susan Kigula and 417 others, where all of the death row inmates in Uganda challenged the mandatory death sentence for murder and armed robbery.

As a result of this case, Susan and hundreds of others were released from death row. She's now completed her law degree. Uganda's most senior judge invited her to apply to join the judiciary. She said: I won't, and now I'm going to train women in prison in the law, so they can use the law to protect their families and their communities.

We're in the process of establishing the world's first prison-based law college. We're then going to establish a prison-based law firm, through which they provide services to their peers.

We have seen about 3,000 people released from prison in Uganda and Kenya, having accessed legal services from prisoners and prison staff we have trained.

The law is seen as a profession for the privileged, for the elite. We want to change that thinking. We recognize that, actually, the law is here to serve all of us. We want to see people getting out of prison, becoming lawyers and judges, and politicians, and legal academics, and business leaders, going from the margins of society to the center of it.

My name is Alexander McLean. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on the power of the law in the hands of the poor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.