Tag Archives: law

How African prisoners are learning to fight for their own rights

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British lawyer Alexander McLean’s fascination with issues of inequality began at a young age. At 9, he was reading about the Civil Rights movement and the death penalty, fascinated by the power of the law to inflict punishment as well as deal out justice. At 18, he traveled to Uganda to volunteer as a hospice worker, where he saw that while patients with private resources received care, inmates sent from prisons were left neglected and untreated. His hope to do something about this disparity has over the years evolved into The African Prisons Project, helping prisoners in Uganda and Kenya access a legal education, and working to develop leaders among prisoners and prison staff. We spoke to the TED Fellow to find out more about how the project came to be — and his hopes for its future.

How did you get involved in working in Africa?

I used to volunteer at a hospice in London every Sunday, where I would spend the afternoon on the wards with patients and their families. In my first few weeks there, I met a teenage girl who was dying of brain cancer. Her whole head was wrapped in bandages, and she couldn’t move. Seeing so many people dying in hospice got me thinking that life isn’t guaranteed. We can’t put off any dreams. The experience got me interested in palliative care, so when I read about Hospice Africa Uganda, I decided to ask if I could visit.

You were only 18 years old when you first visited Kampala. Yet it seems like it had a profound effect on what you did next. Tell us about the trip.

It was humbling. One day we went to Uganda’s main government hospital, where I cared for prisoners and abandoned patients. In Uganda, nurses almost never wash patients, feed them and so on. That’s family work. Only patients who have family and the money to stay with them in hospital receive care. I saw a man lying by the toilet on a black plastic bin bag. He had been found in a market in Kampala, unconscious. They didn’t know anything about him, but thought he had diabetes, and they were waiting for him to die. He was lying in a pool of urine, and the flesh on his back was rotten because he couldn’t move. He was just rotting away.

What did you do?

Back at the hospice, I spoke to my mentor. She said that, even if someone is going to die, they can die clean and cared for. So the next day, I found a nurse who’d been trained in palliative care to help me, and we washed him. I brought him some clean sheets, and we asked the doctors and nurses to treat him. We tried to give him food and drink. I did that for five days, and when I came back on the sixth day, he’d died. He was lying on the floor, naked. The porter came with a trolley with a dead woman. He put his body on top of hers, and said they’d go to a mass grave together.

That was a big turning point in my life. It seemed that his life had no value at all — alive or dead. He was treated like an animal, like rubbish. I saw a risk of valuing others not for our shared humanity but for how much money they earn, the job title they have, the kind of house they live in, and the letters they have after their name.

Seems like it’s safe to say this confrontation with inequality and injustice was deeply affecting. How did you get involved with prisoners in Kampala?

I spent three months caring for patients at that hospital, and it turned out a lot of them were prisoners. I started learning how difficult life could be; they simply did not have access to justice as I understood it. So I asked if I could visit Luzira Upper Prison Uganda, a maximum-security prison. It was another life-changing moment.

What did you find there?

I visited the prison hospital. An 18-year-old boy had just died, and he was sewn into a blanket to be buried. The place was gray and dark and smelly and miserable. I thought that no one deserved to die in this kind of environment. While I’d felt the same way at the government hospital, I didn’t feel there was any possibility to make a difference in such a huge place, whereas the prison hospital only had about 70 beds.

So I returned to the UK for a couple of weeks, and with family, friends, my church and my old school, I raised about £5,000. I went back to Kampala and visited every hotel, asking for mattresses, blankets and sheets. I asked paint companies for paint. I worked with the prisoners and prison staff to do the refurbishment, putting in windows and lights and solar panels, so even if prisoners were going to die, they would die in a dignified and hopeful environment. At our opening ceremony, the Condemned Choir, a choir of death-row inmates, performed.

To read the full interview, visit the new TED Ideas blog >>>

Green is the new red: Will Potter on the problem of treating environmentalists like terrorists

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When Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter went to pass out animal rights leaflets, he had no idea the FBI would single him out and pressure him to become an anti-activism informant, threatening his future if he refused. Here, we talk to the TED Fellow and author of Green is the New Red about this experience, which sent him into a whole new area of research. The crux of what he found: environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered the United States’ number-one domestic terrorism threat, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.

Do you think of yourself as an activist?

I don’t consider myself an activist, but there’s certainly an advocacy component when I’m talking about civil rights issues. My background’s in newspaper and magazine reporting. For a long time I tried to pursue the traditional newsroom path, and I was on it for quite a while. Then, when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, I had some experiences with the FBI that put me in a different direction in terms of the issues I was focused on. Then some good friends of mine were wrapped up in different terrorism prosecutions. These experiences immersed me in the issues unexpectedly, and that definitely changed the path that I was on.

What happened with the FBI?

At the Tribune, I was covering breaking news, shootings, murders and local government, and it was all horribly depressing. It was not the type of thing I went into journalism to do. I had a background in college in environmental activism, and protesting the World Trade Organization and the economic sanctions on Iraq, and I wanted to be involved in something positive like that again. So I went out leafletting with a group of people. We just passed out pieces of paper in a residential neighborhood about animal testing. I thought that was the most I could do as a working journalist — something so benign. And of course, since I have the worst luck ever, we were all arrested and charged. It was the only time I’ve been arrested. Those charges were later thrown out, of course. It was a frivolous arrest. And it’s still lawful to pass out handbills.

A couple weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents at my home, who told me that unless I helped them by becoming an informant and investigating protest groups, they would put me on a domestic terrorist list. They also made some threats about making sure I wouldn’t receive a Fulbright I had applied for, and making sure my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t receive her PhD funding. I really want to think that I wouldn’t be affected by something like that, especially given my activist background, but it just scared the daylights out of me. It really did. That fear eventually turned into an obsession with finding out how this happened, how nonviolent protestors are being labeled as terrorists.

Did they not realize that you were a journalist?

They did, and they obviously didn’t think of the potential of me writing or talking about it. They specifically said, “You are the one of this group that has everything going for you.” They knew everywhere I worked, they knew my editors at the Tribune, they knew different journalism awards I received — and their message was, “Help us or we’re going to put you on a different path.” And they kept saying, “Don’t throw all this away.”

And so at one point, I just said, “What are you going to make go away? This is a class C misdemeanor for leafletting, there’s no way it’s going to hold up in court, and you’re talking about ruining my life.” I of course never became an informant, and never thought about doing anything like that, but — it changed the focus of my work, without a doubt.

Did they bother you after that?

Well, you know, it’s one of those things. It made me realize the power of fear. Because in a situation like that, you don’t know what actually is happening or will happen. There’s no way to find out. Certainly just a few months after 9/11 when this happened, but even today, with the extent of the government’s counterterrorism powers and how they’re being used. So when they talk about making sure I don’t receive a Fulbright, I didn’t receive it, but is that just because I’m not smart enough? Was it because my application wasn’t good enough? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know these things.

Years later, after my book came out, we did a Freedom of Information Act request. I found out that the counterterrorism unit has been monitoring my speeches and book and website. But in terms of day-to-day problems, I really haven’t had any.

How did environmental activism come to be treated as a terrorist crime?

I think the most important thing I found out in my research is that all of this was actually created by the industries that are being protested. In the mid-1980s, these corporations got together and created a new word called “eco-terrorist” — because at the time, these protest movements were growing very quickly and effectively, and they had widespread public support. There clearly was a concern that unless public opinion shifted, there’d be a really big problem on their hands.

So they made up this new word, and then started using public relations campaigns, lobbying, and held congressional hearings. Eventually, that language changed the popular discourse of how we talk about protest. And it was incredibly effective, to the point that now not only does the FBI label animal rights and environmentalists as the number-one domestic terrorism threat — even though they’ve never harmed a single human being — but we have new legislation that singles these protesters out for felonies and as terrorists for what are, in some cases, nonviolent protests.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>