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.
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