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A Ugandan Boy's Friendship With An American Lawyer Inspires Justice Reform

Even when he stood facing the Strait of Gibraltar and Morocco during a family trip through Europe, Jim Gash recalls telling his then-13-year-old daughter he would never visit Africa. But after dragging his feet for a couple of years, Gash finally accepted an invitation to visit Uganda with Pepperdine University School of Law students in 2009. This trip became the beginning of a lifelong journey in which he would transition from “just a do-gooder tourist” into an advocate for justice in a country more than 9,000 miles away from his Los Angeles home. It was during this trip, as well, that Gash would from a lifelong friendship with a young man he met in a juvenile prison.

Learn more about Gash, director of Pepperdine’s Global Justice Program and author of “Divine Collision,” in the Link Voices film “Remand” and the interview below.

 

What what was the "aha moment" that triggered you to take action in helping imprisoned children in Africa?

Jim Gash: The then-director of Pepperdine’s Global Justice Program, Jay Milbrandt, had been urging me to join the students in their work in Uganda, which began in 2007. I was serving as Dean of Students and Jay argued that it was important for the Dean of Students to accompany the students. I was unconvinced – this type of work was for other people. During Bob’s keynote address at the national conference of the Christian Legal Society in 2009, however, everything changed. “Love isn’t just about encouraging people, supporting them, or even praying for them. If you love, then you will do. Love Does!” he said. He then told the audience gathering in San Diego about 21 kids imprisoned in a juvenile remand home in Masindi, Uganda, who needed help getting access to justice. I felt an undeniable urge to take Bob’s admonition seriously. Soon thereafter, I met Henry in that juvenile prison

Henry (left) and Jim (right) chat in Uganda. | "Remand"
Henry (left) and Jim (right) chat in Uganda. | "Remand"

Tell us about your friendship with Henry.

JG: Henry is like a son to me, and always will be. We still talk every week. I learned so much from him about faith, courage, stamina, and patience. I feel like I am still learning from him. In many ways, he is one of my heroes because of how he endured unspeakable injustice, and yet has never been bitter about it. He trusts in God completely and believes his imprisonment was all part of God’s plan to provide him and his family opportunities they never would have had. (He is in medical school and his younger brother who was in prison with him is now in law school). I strive for a faith like his.

Henry has visited the United States twice – once in 2016 when our book "Divine Collision" was released, and once in June of 2017 when “Remand” first played in a film festival in Dallas. Henry and I traveled to Tennessee, Virginia, Washington D.C., New York, and throughout Texas. We enjoyed every minute, and we never argue or grow tired of each other.

How was it to move your family to Uganda for six months?

JG: The profound impact on my family from our six months in Uganda is impossible to adequately describe. The decision to move there was not well received by my family when I first proposed it. My kids were 15, 13, and 11 and their world was relatively small when we arrived. When we left, they had each turned one year older, but their world was 10 times bigger. They have learned to appreciate what they have so much more, and their lives have moved in directions they never would have expected as a result. My oldest is now going to be a Physician’s Assistant as a result of the work my family did with mobile medical clinics while we were there. All three of my kids have been back to Uganda (two of them multiple times), and my wife has joined me on three additional trips. (I have now traveled to Uganda 21 times).

When we were there, we learned to eat their food, a bit of their language, and lots of their culture. Simply put, we fell in love with Uganda and its people.

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The students in the film seem excited about participating in the program, though nervous. How do you prepare your students for their 8-week trip to Uganda?

JG: The students are, indeed, excited, nervous, intimidated, and eager – all wrapped up in a blanket of anxiety. In advance of their internships, my colleague Jenna DeWalt and I meet with them several times at school and in my home and walk through the legal, cultural, social, and professional norms in Uganda. Included in these meetings are former students who have previously served as interns in Uganda, who share their experiences. And yet, there is really nothing that can adequately prepare them for what they are about to encounter as they walk into a prison in the developing world.

We have never had a student drop out of the program during the summer, though we did have to send one of our students interning in Rwanda home a week early. She had contracted Malaria and was suffering severe dehydration.

We do our best to manage and minimize the risks encountered by our students. It is not possible to entirely eliminate danger even for our students who work in our Los Angeles-based legal clinics. The biggest dangers our students encounter are traffic accidents, as things are much less regulated in Uganda. Thankfully, we have not had any major incidents. A few students have also gotten sick due to whitewater rafting in the Nile.

The film describes that many prisoners are willing to take responsibility for their crimes and plead guilty. How does that compare to the U.S.? How does prison overcrowding in Uganda compare to the U.S.?

JG: In the United States, more than 95 percent of all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining, whereby the accused person pleads guilty in exchange for either the charges being reduced or the potential sentence being shortened. This happens because prosecutors rarely proceed with criminal charges unless the evidence gathered by the police is very strong. In Uganda, prior to their adoption of plea bargaining in the wake of Henry’s case, all cases were going to court for a trial – prisoners were not given the opportunity to plead guilty and accept responsibility for their crimes. That has now changed, and Uganda has now resolved more than 10,000 cases through plea bargaining over the past few years.

With respect to overcrowding, the United States has strict policies about overcrowding, leading to prisoners being released early if space for new arrivals is limited. Uganda has no such rules. Accordingly, many prisons have more than five times the maximum allowed capacity. In one prison where we worked in 2015, prisoners had to sleep in shifts (8:00 p.m. – 4:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m. – noon, and noon – 8:00 p.m.) because there was insufficient floor space. Yes, they slept on the concrete floor. Fortunately, things are now improving in this regard due to their adoption of plea bargaining, but it will take time before the problem is fully rectified.

This episode of "What in the World" takes a look at undernutrition in Uganda and evaluates a number of child-specific health care interventions.

When prisoners are released, what is the re-entry process like?

JG: In the capital city of Kampala, juveniles released from detention are accompanied by a Probation and Social Welfare Officer back to their home villages, who explains to the community that the juvenile has been released by the courts. This helps ensure that the juvenile is not deemed an escapee and re-arrested, or even attacked by the locals. In the rural areas, however, juveniles are often released simply by putting them on the back of a motorcycle taxi or a mini-bus and sent back home. This is what happened to Henry when he was released. He was taken to the mini-bus stop by the warden and put on the bus from Masindi bound for Hoima, about two hours away.

In the capital city of Kampala, juveniles released from detention are accompanied by a Probation and Social Welfare Officer back to their home villages, who explains to the community that the juvenile has been released by the courts. This helps ensure that the juvenile is not deemed an escapee and re-arrested, or even attacked by the locals. In the rural areas, however, juveniles are often released simply by putting them on the back of a motorcycle taxi or a mini-bus and sent back home. This is what happened to Henry when he was released. He was taken to the mini-bus stop by the warden and put on the bus from Masindi bound for Hoima, about two hours away.

Hear the the story of Winnie, a woman who stood up for herself and used her legal rights to overcome a multitude of hardships. | "The Barefoot Lawyers of Uganda"

Are there any lessons the U.S. can learn from Uganda?

JG: The most startling aspect of entering a prison in Uganda is just how well the inmates get along with each other and with the guards. There is a solidarity there that is not seen in the United States. The guards and prisoners are friends, and the prison gang activity is essentially non-existent. Our teams of students and lawyers move freely in and among the prisoners without fear of attack even in the maximum security prisons. In fact, the prisoners are provided knives and machetes to slaughter and butcher the cows we buy for them before we leave each prison, and they do this in our presence. I have been in several US prisons, and the tension between guards and prisoners, and among prisoners is palpable and well documented.

Will you continue working with the Ugandan judiciary? What other projects do you have on the horizon?

JG: I continue to work with the Judiciary and will until I am no longer capable of work. Uganda is my second home, and I love its people and its quest for justice. I am actually writing these responses on a plane back from Washington, DC, where I have spent the last three days with the Chief Justice, the Ugandan Ambassador to the U.S., and seven other judicial officers. We met with a phenomenal non-profit organization called International Justice Mission, the World Bank, the State Department, and seven members of Congress to discuss how access to justice can be enhanced in Africa. Under the Memorandum of Understanding Pepperdine and Uganda signed in 2015, our areas of cooperation are virtually limitless. Whatever needs they have that we can help with is what will we focus on. This has included plea bargaining, civil mediation, appellate mediation, and case management. We have recently embarked on projects in Anti-Human Trafficking and Women in Leadership.

On the horizon, we hope to expand our work to other countries in Africa and around the globe. Other developing countries have seen the success Uganda is having and is asking us for help. I have recently traveled to Rwanda and India with a Ugandan judicial leader, and I think we will next begin working with Ghana to assist them in their efforts to deliver efficient and effective justice to their citizens.

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