Alexander McLean
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   United Kingdom

Alexander McLean

Across much of Africa, people in prisons are closed away from society and stripped of their basic rights, often without having been convicted of a crime. Through education, access to health and…
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This description of Alexander McLean's work was prepared when Alexander McLean was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Across much of Africa, people in prisons are closed away from society and stripped of their basic rights, often without having been convicted of a crime. Through education, access to health and nurturing leadership, Alexander Mclean is bringing humanity back into these prison systems and transforming how prisoners are regarded by the public, by prison staff, and by themselves.

The New Idea

Alexander McLean founded the African Prisons Project (APP) in 2007 to bring hope and dignity into prisons in Africa from the bottom up. Based on the conviction that dignity cannot exist in a vacuum, Alexander’s idea begins with building a baseline of health and education opportunities for people in prison. This includes establishing Uganda’s first prison libraries, giving access to a complete pipeline of education options from primary to higher education, and generating new low-cost health services. Alexander’s vision brings empathy into prisons one by one, working hand-in-hand with key staff as a leverage point. The APP connects these individuals with the tools, education and surrounding ecosystem they need to take on leadership and implement prison reform from the inside. Alexander believes that only by working at this grassroots level with people inside of prisons can systemic change truly be created, especially in a geographical region with very limited financial and staffing resources available.
The effects are bridging to the highest levels of governance, the judiciary system and the public. The APP’s work and network of leaders have successfully engaged local officials, the Ugandan Prison Service (UPS), judges, the clergy and local media. The UPS now aims to establish education resource centres in many of the country’s prisons, to provide every prison with village health teams, and to adapt its practices to reflect an increased focus on rehabilitation. It has provided many prisons with rehabilitation “councillors” (a project initially developed by the APP), and hopes to develop training programmes for village health teams in 240 prisons. To date the APP’s work has directly engaged with over 25,000 inmates in three countries, and made education and health facilities available to over 100,000 people. Alexander is now rolling out work in Kenya, exploring a partnership with the South Sudan Prison Service, and has received requests to partner with ten additional countries. Public opinion in the region is currently weighted towards punishing prisoners, rather than rehabilitating them. But the APP’s work is transforming perception towards people in prison, catalysing the realisation that these people deserve to be treated with humanity. In turn, people in prisons are regaining their self worth and taking back control of their lives to build more positive futures.

The Problem

Across much of Central and East Africa, and in Uganda, people in prison are the sector of society which faces some of the most damaging living conditions and human rights abuses. Understaffing and severe overcrowding of prisons has been an ongoing problem since the 1980s, with Ugandan prisons at up to three times their official capacity. Cells contain up to 40 people per cell who are sometimes beaten and made to kneel in front of the warders. Prisoners can be malnourished, and lack access to basic health care and sanitation, contributing to HIV and TB rates 2-4 times higher than the national level. Convictions include unusual crimes such as “vagrancy” and homosexuality; and corporal punishment, hard labour, and death sentences are in routine usage. Additionally, 59% of the current prison population has not yet been convicted of a crime, with prisoners being behind bars for up to 8 years without a trial. International surveys estimate that the majority of people in prison may be innocent, or have not committed an offence by UK standards, but they will leave prison extremely debilitated, with lasting effects on their communities.
These conditions have been the subject of countless reports and campaigns by the large international human rights groups, and the Ugandan government has faced sanctions and rebukes. To date, the response has been for the criminal justice system to receive injections of external resources and millions of dollars every year in the form of development assistance and aid. Primary education is only available in a small number of prisons. The UN’s response has been to fund the construction of new prisons. Citizen sector organisations have brought only episodic and short-term voluntary health and paralegal assistance in from outside, and Jesuit nuns’ visits are based on charity and pity for the disadvantaged. However, these initiatives have done little for systematic change on the ground. Crucially, these approaches fail to leverage existing resources effectively, within a criminal justice system which is extremely resource-poor and a budget that is unlikely to increase substantially in the foreseeable future. Compounding this problem is the expectation that Uganda’s prison population will double by 2019.
Perpetuating the seemingly intractable statistics above are two deeply-rooted cultural and historical factors. Firstly, the origin of prisons in the region is a relic from the British colonial system, designed for commanding and controlling rather than any type of rehabilitation or respect for human rights. The prison system has undergone little change in the 50 years since Ugandan independence - warders are provided with military training and uniforms, but few practical skills for entering the criminal justice sector and assisting effectively with rehabilitation. Secondly, public opinion is largely unconcerned with people in prisons’ rights and rehabilitation. Prisoners therefore lack systematic advocacy both within and outside of prisons. The human rights implications of this system for people on the ground is clear. Physically weak, unrepresented, and largely illiterate, prisoners have little reason to hope their conditions can improve or to take control of their futures. Both prisoners and prison staff are trapped in undignified, unjust, and unhealthy prison environments, closed away from the concerns of local media and the public eye with little scope for taking personal initiative.

The Strategy

Alexander’s aim is to equip prisoners and prison staff alike with the opportunities, leadership skills, and surrounding ecosystem they need to change the criminal justice system from within. His strategy to achieve this has evolved over time, carefully creating three building blocks necessary to change the system: innovative basic infrastructure, transforming livelihoods through education, and unleashing leadership capabilities.
The first part of Alexander’s strategy is to establish a baseline of wellbeing in target prisons through basic infrastructure, particularly health centres and libraries. For each project, Alexander carefully gains the buy-in of key officials, who must commit to providing adequate staffing and ongoing upkeep after construction. He then involves inmates and volunteers, and recruits local businesses to donate all refurbishment materials. Alexander has always believed volunteers – whether local people, inmates or international – are a key stakeholder of the APP’s work, to reduce costs but more importantly to create a diverse league of prison reformers. Finally, the APP provides quality training and on-going support for prisoners and staff to run the infrastructure independently.
To date, Alexander has rolled out this work to 21 prisons in Uganda, Kenya and historically Sierra Leone. Library services are now accessible to 100,000 inmates and staff, and the clinics are accessible to over 40,000 prisoners and members of the prison community, with inpatient services helping terminally ill prisoners to receive medical treatment and die with dignity. Rather than expand this work exponentially, going forward Alexander plans to bring this work to a stable six prisons per year, choosing the most influential prisons that will serve as best practice examples to catalyse more systemic reforms. For example, two of Alexander’s prison initiatives were featured in the UPS Calendar, which hangs in every warder’s office and serves as a primary communication channel between Kampala and rural prisons. Alexander has also codified his approach and recruited partner organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Book Aid International to accelerate scaling across the region in future, and the APP is exploring the development of “box libraries”, and of mobile container clinics with University College London.
The next part of Alexander’s strategy is to connect people in prisons to a complete pipeline of education options: real opportunities to gain skills and dignity despite being behind bars. The APP has rolled out a “train the trainers” approach reaching both staff and inmates – who are engaged to share their skills and teach other prisoners in informal classrooms. This peer-to-peer learning model has proven to have a transformative effect on inmates’ and staffs’ outlook without relying on increased funding provision. At the most basic level, Alexander has developed a Functional Adult Literacy curriculum for literacy, numeracy and basic employability currently active in 10 prisons, aimed at the 80% of prisoners who are illiterate. For prisoners who can read, they can access independent learning through a library and attend training courses on topics from disease prevention to human rights and law (including bail training, interpreting judgements and drafting their own appeals). Most recently, Alexander has brokered a relationship with the University of London for prisoners and staff to gain higher education degrees in law, through study by distance. Despite not having internet access, inmates have already been empowered to take up their own cases and those of their peers. Three prisoners managed to have their death sentences overturned, and two more have been released from prison and now work with APP as volunteers and activists.
Alexander knows that many more changemakers are needed, innovating at every level, to transform the system fundamentally. The final part of Alexander’s strategy is therefore to identify key prison staff and officials, such as the UPS staff member responsible for training all prison warders. Alexander connects them with prestigious further education opportunities, unleashing their leadership potential, and creating cohorts who can initiate and sustain change in a supportive environment. In addition to the distance study-courses with leading UK universities mentioned above, Alexander has also developed secondments and inter-country exchange programs in the fields of law, education, health care, human rights and additional fields relevant to penal reform. This year the second cohort of leaders are coming to the UK, including senior prison officers from Kenya and Nigeria. Participants will then return to their roles equipped with action plans, enhanced perspective, increased seniority, leadership skills, and connected to a supportive network of international peer changemakers. Already, one participating leader has secured a promotion within the UPS and another has been offered a role as a legal officer in the Ugandan Peoples’ Defence Forces.
Through this three-part strategy, Alexander hopes to create tipping points at key parts of the system: in prisoners, prisons, and leadership. Already, Kampala’s Luzira Upper Prison is approaching a landmark moment due to the APP’s strategy to date. This prison which holds 3,500 maximum security inmates – 10% of Uganda’s prison population – is where Alexander undertook his first library and clinic projects. From this, the UPS agreed to build a laboratory to analyse diseases. Within just over a year, the APP’s work contributed to reduce the annual death rate from 144 to 12. Alexander proceeded to engage and train the staff and prisoners, so that today, 100s of inmates sit high school qualifications every year, and many go on to apply for study by distance courses. Almost 1/3 of inmates are now engaged in formal or informal education – a point the APP has identified as the critical mass needed for mindshift change across the prison. Doctors and staff are showing up to work and feel great pride in their employment. Alexander believes that as Uganda’s most influential prison, this change at Luzira and other key institutions in future will have ripple effects across the region.

The Person

Alexander grew up in the southern outskirts of London, and was the first member of his family to attend university. He developed a strong bond with his maternal grandmother, whom he visited every week; she pushed him to reach his full potential, both academically and by instilling strong personal values. Alexander gained a full scholarship to attend a public school, but felt sheltered in such a homogeneous setting. At age sixteen, he began volunteering at a local hospice. Whilst there, Alexander met a 19-year-old girl dying of cancer, and was deeply impacted by how fragile life could be. He resolved to dedicate his own life for a deeper meaning: helping those most in need of support.
That year, Alexander read a newspaper article about one of the first hospices in Uganda, became determined to visit, and started corresponding with the hospice by letter. As soon as he graduated from school, Alexander joined the hospice, becoming their youngest volunteer to date. His two-week visit turned into a 6-month stay as he dug deeper into Uganda’s health system and came face-to-face with those experiencing the worst treatment in the country. He saw prisoners handcuffed to their beds, starving and abandoned by their families and nurses. He helped one prisoner who had multiple skin infections and been left to die on the floor, convincing local staff to provide minimal clothing and a bed. When this prisoner died nameless, Alexander felt bitterly frustrated and resolved to unearth the root cause of a system that denied humans any dignity.
After weeks of persistence, Alexander gained permission to visit death row at Kampala’s maximum security prison. He developed friendships with the inmates and a lasting sense of empathy for these fellow human beings who found themselves in such degrading conditions. Compelled to restore their dignity however he could, Alexander raised a small amount of money, knocked on the doors of shops and hotels to collect beds, sheets, soaps and materials, and recruited prisoners’ help to refurbish a room in the prison as a health centre. Alexander began to realize the huge impact such a humble initiative could have, as he saw both staff and inmates take pride in the project and morale increase. He persuaded the most prestigious local officials to buy into the project too, designing an opening ceremony with key leaders and local press coverage.
Alexander returned to the UK to study Law at the University of Nottingham in order to develop his skills and credentials in this area. Throughout his time as a student, he returned to Uganda whenever he could, visiting prisons throughout central and eastern Africa to gain a deep understanding of the key challenges. He recruited dozens of students’ support, established Uganda’s first prison library in his first year at university, and established the African Prisons Project as a student society in 2006. Over the next few years Alexander would patiently build lasting links between an increasing number of prisoners, prisons, and changemaker networks in the UK and Uganda. By listening openly to prisoners and staff, mutual respect, and quickly learning from his mistakes, Alexander’s strategy would rapidly evolve, making the APP the highly-leveraged organisation it is today. He currently spends more than half of his time in the UK as a strategic base to build the core infrastructure needed for the APP to tip the prison sector across Africa: focussing on strategic partnerships, international expansion strategy, fundraising, media, and political advocacy. In his spare time, Alexander is developing his credentials and personal legal expertise as a senior advocate for prison reform; he became Nottingham’s youngest Magistrate (a volunteer position as a judge in the UK’s judicial system) and has a keen interest in the death penalty globally. He is dedicated to being a lifelong visionary and competent reformer of the justice system in Africa and across the world.

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