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Pete Ouko - A journey from the death row to a law graduate

January 04, 2019
topic:Good Governance
tags:#Pete Ouko, #prison reform, #human rights, #Crime Si Poa, #Africa
by:Bob Koigi
Twenty years ago, Pete Ouko was sentenced to death for alleged murder and robbed of his freedom and family. While serving his sentence, an opportunity to study a course of his choice presented itself following the prison reforms programme.

Driven by the resolve to correct the inadequacies in the judicial and correctional facilities in Kenya, he enrolled for law studies and in 2014 became the first Kenyan inmate to earn a law diploma while behind bars.

His sentence would later be commuted to life imprisonment. When he was eventually released under presidential pardon, he promised to use his education and prison experience to assist those struggling to access justice while inspiring those behind bars to drive positive change.

He now runs a youth safety awareness initiative dubbed Crime Si Poa, Swahili for crime is not cool, which advocates for a crime-free society while working with communities in educating them about their rights.

He spoke to FairPlanet about his journey from a murder convict to a law graduate, the transformation of Kenyan prisons from torture chambers to empowerment centres and the mission of working with the youth to tackle crime considering 70% of those behind bars and those coming in are young people.

FairPlanet: From a convict on death row to becoming the first inmate in Kenya to attain a Diploma in common law. Walk us through the journey. How did it happen, what inspired you and why it mattered to you?

Pete Ouko: Being wrongly accused and sentenced to death is dehumanizing and can be very traumatising, but I decided from the word go that instead of looking at my imprisonment as a handicap, I would use it for the common good. My studying law was not only to enable me to get justice for my late wife but also to help others who were in worse position than mine to access justice.

What do you think of Africa’s correctional facilities? What would you change?

I would not lie to talk about correctional facilities in Africa as I have only visited one outside my country. What I can say about the Kenyan correctional facilities is that they are living up to their vision of being the best in Africa in reforming and rehabilitating inmates. I say that without fear of contradiction as I have seen and walked the journey from the time the prisons were torture chambers, to when 15 years ago, the administration had a paradigm shift that made them rehabilitation and correctional facilities to the present age when they have become empowerment centres. Inmates leaving Kenyan correctional facilities are largely equipped with skills to live positive lives upon release. The main handicap which they face upon release is access to finance for setting up enterprises based on their skills set which cannot be attributed to the prisons department.

How about the judicial system. Is it in your opinion still a source of refuge and defender of rights for ordinary citizens?

There has been a progressive move in the judiciary to make it more responsive to the needs of the citizens but challenges still abound, especially regard to the backlog of cases and slow dispensation of justice.

What is in your opinion the biggest threat for inmates?

The biggest fear of inmates is acceptance upon release and structures upon which to rebuild their lives, more so for those who have stayed in prison for long. Granted that Kenya has no halfway homes and that the Probation and Aftercare department has limited resources, my organization, will, subject to successful fundraising and support, put up a halfway home on an expansive piece of land we have been granted long term use of. As I have stated earlier, inmates are coming out skilled and ready to work, but they have no access to capital or resources to start their lives afresh. Very few people are also willing to employ them.

How important is it to invest in inmates’ education and skills training?

It is of vital importance to do so as many inmates go into prison with little or no formal education. Education enables them to break the cycle of recidivism and aids in their personal development and confidence level. Prisons in Kenya are now churning out professionals in the fields of accountants, computer and law graduates and other disciplines.

You have been actively involved in restoring hope, justice and dignity to the prison justice system. What exactly does this involve?

I run a charity called Youth Safety Awareness Initiative, better known by its brand name Crime Si Poa which means crime is not cool. I formed it while on death row 11 years ago to champion a crime-free society as 70 per cent of those behind bars and those coming in are the youth. We started as an informal lobby and advocacy group before formal registration as a Not for Profit in 2009. We now, in conjunction with the Strathmore Law clinic, help communities know their rights, the indolent access justice and use social enterprise to help in rehabilitation in our prisons. I am also an internal speaker and recent inductee to the Board of Amnesty International Kenya.

Having spent 20 years in prison how was the process of reintegrating into society and how is the reception of society to those released from prison?

I never lost friends when I went to prison because they knew my innocence and so stood by me all through. I think I was the most visited inmate during my stint in prison. On the flip side, I made more friends both within but mostly outside prison so my coming out and re-integration was seamless. It had challenges especially in meeting the demands of the huge number of friends and relatives who wanted personal visits and honestly speaking, and with our large number of relations, I am yet to go round visiting all of them. However, it is and was great being reunited with the people I love the most, my kids and immediate family.

What do you consider your greatest achievement since leaving prison?

Impacting lives of the young and vulnerable members of the society as well as setting up the charity headquarters which doubles as a Resource Centre for the very poor in society.

Are you satisfied with the pace of prison reforms in Kenya and in the other countries you have visited? What would be your priority?

Kenya is doing well as it has enacted laws to anchor the reform agenda in prisons, notably, The Persons Deprived of Liberty Act 2014. The highlight of the reforms is the open door policy which has enabled different partners to come on board to partner with and empower the Prisons department in its reform agenda. I would love to see more countries not only in Africa but worldwide adopt best practices in prisons reforms like Kenya and many Scandinavian countries have done. I am happy the USA has also finally seen the light and is working hard to adopt the First Step Act.

Many countries are hesitant to scrap capital punishment insisting that it is a sentence that matches the crime. Is death sentence a deterrent to crime and what would you tell countries that advocate for it?

I do not believe capital punishment is a deterrent to crime otherwise the States still carrying it out would have the lowest crime figures in the world. Instead, countries in the European Union which don’t carry out the death penalty have lower crime figures. What we need to address as a civilised people are the real issues that lead to the committing of crimes that are capital in nature. Is it lack of opportunity for the youth? Is it drug and substance abuse? Is it poor role modelling and parenting? Is it broken families and abdication of parental duties by absentee dads? Is it really poverty as many would want to conclude? It is only by addressing these issues bottom-up as we are doing at Crime Si Poa that we will see a marked decrease in crime figures and with it a concomitant decrease in youth involvement in crime.

What is the toughest thing about this initiative?

Whereas we have enjoyed huge public support as we use a bottom-up approach in our outreach, lack of resources to employ and maintain a proper workforce is my biggest challenge at present. As a young organisation, we have a donor directly paying our rent but would be grateful to raise core funding to run the programs which have proved to have a great impact on society.

What is your ultimate plan?

My ultimate aim is to set up a vibrant and responsive organisation where at-risk youth, the poor and vulnerable can proudly identify as their safe space. We aim to empower as many youths as possible as I believe the time for the youth is now.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
From death row to law graduate | Peter Ouko
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