Creating Access to Justice

By Tiffanie Bittle

Four and a half weeks gone with four and half more to go. I am half way through my time here, and I wish I could press the brakes and make time slow down a little. With so much happening every day and so many fun experiences, I want to savor every moment because every moment so far has been well worth savoring. Here are just a few reasons of the many reasons why.

First, let’s talk about the people.
Professor Jim Gash and Jenna DeWalt did a fantastic job assembling a team of people who would become a family.  And we have. Matt, Hannah, Claire, Oscar, Matt, Victor, Chris, Ed, Sarah, and Joy are some of the best people I know, and it is a privilege to serve alongside them.  Together, we have been exploring Kampala, getting to know each other, and sharing experiences that, once we go home, no one else will even begin to understand.  Words cannot express my love and appreciation for my Ugandan family.

Exploring Kampala
If I’m honest, I only really had meaningful conversations with 4 out of the 10 students before we met up in Dubai on our way to Uganda.  I truly regret missing a whole year of law school with these people.  It’s been funny to see how the first impressions and assumptions we made about each other before we came have been completely shattered.  I have enjoyed the hours we have spent chilling out after work, talking about life, law school, and our experiences so far in Uganda.  They have had my back at every turn, from fending off strange Ugandan men (and other undesirables), to keeping me from getting hit by a boda boda, to practically forcing me to finish the Law Review write-on competition when I wanted to give up.  They push me to step out and try new things daily, and I love how easily we have all connected.  Leaving this group behind next month is going to be rough…

The Prison Project
Wow. It has been over a week since we got back, but it has taken that long to even begin processing what we did there.  I honestly had no idea what to expect going into the prison project. I knew the basics, that we were going into prisons to plea-bargain with the inmates.  I knew it was going to be a great learning experience, but I did not realize what a life-changing experience it would be.  I knew it was going to be a physically and emotionally draining week, but I did not realize the extensive toll it would take on all of us.  I knew I would be talking to people who had been accused of crimes and advocating for their rights, but I did not know how difficult it would be to look an innocent man in the eye and tell him there was nothing we could do and he should trust the system, when we know how corrupt the Ugandan system can be.

My Team for the Prison Project
Over the course of 4 days, we visited 4 prisons. We sat with countless inmates, heard their stories, argued with prosecutors for lower sentences, and counseled our clients on their best choice in an impossible scenario. In short, we were lawyers. Honest to goodness lawyers in every practical sense. Of course, each team has a licensed American lawyer, and often a Ugandan lawyer as well, to ensure the client was being well-served. But we students, both Pepperdine’s American students and a team of Ugandan Christian University law students, were allowed to get our hands dirty and really get a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

That’s not to say it was easy, or even necessarily fun. We were in prisons meant to hold hundreds that were forced to hold thousands. The sights and sounds and smells of each facility were heartbreaking because we know how hard the Ugandan government is working to improve these conditions and relieve overcrowding, but it is a slow and difficult process. The progress Uganda has made in the last 10 years is significant, and the momentum is carrying strong, but we constantly feel like we were moving two steps forward and one step back.

In Uganda, when a person is arrested, they are put in prison on remand until their trial. This can take 6 months or up to 5 years because of case backlog.  Our purpose was to give prisoners access to justice right then and there.  By getting a prisoner to plead guilty, we take one case off the docket of the courts, give that prisoner a sense of certainty regarding their future, and prevent the victims of the crime from having to testify in court.  When all is said and done, each case takes approximately one day in total to process through the court system.  By removing 100 cases from the backlog in the 4 days we were there, we moved the others more than 3 months closer to their day in court.  And really, the main purpose of this project was not to help those 100 prisons.  Pepperdine is very intentional about the old phrase, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”  We are not in Uganda to show Ugandans how awesome Americans are and how good things happen when Americans show up.  We are partnering with Ugandan judges, lawyers, and law students to teach them how to plea-bargain so that when we leave, they can continue.  We are working for systemic change, not just a short-term quick-fix.

A day of the prison project involved us waking up at our incredibly beautiful safari hotel in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, eating breakfast, and loading up the buses and vans by 7-7:30 depending on how far the drive was that day the day.  Then we would drive.  For hours.  The prisons ranged from an hour and a half to three hours away.  I use hours because miles would be deceptive.  The roads in Uganda are notoriously bad.  Giant potholes, entire chunks of the road just missing, and random speed bumps that my little Honda Fit back home would probably get beached on. We had to take things slow at times to avoid tipping into a ditch. After we bumped around on the roads for a few hours, we would arrive at our prison for that day.

I was amazed how different each prison was. Don’t think of a prison like the ones in America because they are nothing alike.  The first prison was a maximum-security prison, but the extent of the security was that everything we brought was searched and we needed a guard to escort us to the bathroom.  At other, less secure, prisons including a large farm prison, the prisoners could walk freely around most the compound. At the maximum security prisons, we dealt mostly with capital cases, like murder, rape, aggravated defilement (rape of a child), and aggravated robbery.  Those were the really difficult days.  At other prisons we had cases like theft and “obtaining goods by false pretenses” (fraud) that were a little easier to handle.

We would walk into the prisons every day to a sea of yellow shirts and expectant faces.  About 2 or 3 hours into the plea-bargaining session, the Presiding Judge of the High Court (PJ) would have a big ceremony to “officially start the training session.”  Ugandans love to turn everything into an event.  And while, to us, this seemed like an exorbitant waste of time, it was important for the PJ to show the different lawyers and judges who came to watch or participate that this is a priority and it really is making a difference.

When we would finally have the chance to sit down with the prisoners, things got even more frustrating.  Because plea-bargaining is a new concept in Uganda, there is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding it.  Every prisoner thought we were there to get them out of prison that day or at least in the next 2 or 3 years.  But we weren’t there to break murders and rapists out of prison, we were there to give the inmates access to justice and to train Ugandan lawyers in the process.  Every murderer wanted out in 3 years.  Every rapist wanted out in 1 year, but with a potential court sentence ranging from 35 years to the Death Penalty for most capital crimes, this was just not going to happen.  On the first day, we spent hours trying to convince our clients to take the very generous offers of 10-15 years for these capital crimes, only to realize that the prisoners had colluded together the night before to agree not to take more than 3-6 years for any crime.  It was frustrating to be fighting so hard for someone who is not letting you help them.  We talked to 8 different prisoners that day and got 2 signed plea-bargains.

The next few days were even slower because we did not have files for most of the prisoners who had signed up for plea-bargaining. In many cases, were only able to interview the prisoner and prepare a summary brief of the case so a Ugandan lawyer could follow up another day.  But there were a few cases, like one young man who stole the equivalent of about $15 from his neighbour so he could get treatment for malaria, where we were actually able to get the prisoners out on time served.  These cases were rare and we had to work incredibly hard for them, but the joy on the prisoners’ faces was unreal and made it all worth it.

Somewhere in there, we would break for lunch that consisted exclusively of rice, Matooke (a thick, mashed banana-ish fruit with very little flavor but very filling), G-nut sauce (a peanut sauce that looks deceptively like refried beans), and mystery stew (seriously, could have been beef chicken or goat and I would never know the difference).  At the end of the day, when we were all exhausted, that’s when the actual fun started.  The prisoners eat very little food and almost never get meat.  So, we brought each prison a cow for the men and a goat or 2 for the women.  At one prison, we played football (AKA soccer) with the prisoners and somehow managed to win! It might have something to do with the fact that we had an amazing goalie…and shoes, but either way, we’ll take the victory.  I wasn’t the best player out there, but I must have done okay because one prisoner proposed marriage to me after the game.  I told him no thanks, but I’m not really sure if he got the picture…

Then, a new tradition was born: The prison dance party.  Imagine hundreds of African inmates crowded around about 10-15 Mzungus (non-Africans) all dancing like there’s no tomorrow.  We all joked later about how surreal it is to be surrounded by convicted murders and rapists, a situation that would not have a pleasant end in an American prison, and we all felt perfectly safe.  Full-on razer-blades would fall out of the prisoners’ pockets as they break-danced, no biggie.  A prison guard dancing right in with us, his gun accessible to anyone, no one even blinked.

My biggest lesson came from those dance parties: We are all people.  It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past, at the end of the day, you are a person.  Lawyer, prison guard, law student, prisoner. It doesn’t matter.  It’s a hard concept to wrap your mind around when you are reading case files and seeing the crime-scene photos of the horrendous crimes these people committed.  But when that music started we were all dancing like fools together, suddenly I could see the humanity in them and the love God has for them and I was so grateful for the opportunity to serve them.

As stressful and uncomfortable and emotionally exhausting as the prison project was, it was one of the best weeks of my life and I would come back again in a heartbeat to do it all over again

Did I mention the people?
Arguably, the most important part of each day at the prison project was the trip back to the hotel.  Who can you talk to about the horrors you heard described from people who were just downright evil and who you had to represent to the best of your ability? Answer: the people who have just spent 9 hours doing the exact same thing.  In the back of our bouncy bus during the 2-3 hour trip, we processed the day, expressed the emotions we could not express in front of our clients, and somehow found humour in the ridiculousness of human behavior.  I cannot imagine that week without the people in these photos.  We owe our sanity to the camaraderie and support of the team as a whole.  I am and will be eternally grateful that I am a part of this amazing group of humans.

We are in AFRICA!!!!
The animals.  My, oh, my, the animals!!!  We are in Africa.  It’s easy to forget that in the midst of all our legal work.  But then we’d be driving and see a herd of elephants! Or a troop of Baboons! And we realize “HOLY SMOKES WE ARE IN AFRICA!!!!”

At the end of the week, we went on a boat cruise and a game drive and saw hippos, and elephants, and water buffalo, and lions, and warthogs and so many more.  It was such an amazing time. Unfortunately, my phone freaked out and I did not get any pictures from either excursion, so I am stealing some from the stellar photographers in our group because my ancient little iPhone would not have done it justice anyway.

And then there’s the fact that we crossed the equator multiple times.  You know, just bouncing between the hemispheres. No big.

I have fallen in love
Four and a half weeks in Uganda and I have fallen in love with the place.  The people and the culture are wonderful.  I can’t quite say that about the food… or the roads… but I am going to have such a hard time leaving this place.  I get the feeling that 20 years from now, if someone asked what time in my life I would want to go back and re-live, it would be this time.  Right here, right now, with these people and this life.  I don’t want to leave.

There is so much more I want to write about but I should probably stop here for now.  To all those who helped me get here, either through financial support or through prayer and encouragement: Thank you!!! I am so incredibly grateful to be here.

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