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TEDGlobal 2017

Peter Ouko: From death row to law graduate

Filmed:
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Peter Ouko spent 18 years in Kamiti Prison in Kenya, sometimes locked up in a cell with 13 other grown men for 23 and a half hours a day. In a moving talk, he tells the story of how he was freed -- and his current mission with the African Prisons Project: to set up the first law school behind bars and empower people in prison to drive positive change.

- Prison reform advocate
Pete Ouko champions access to justice for inmates in Africa. Full bio

I want to tell you a story about Manson.
00:12
Manson was this 28-year-old
interior designer,
00:17
a father to a loving daughter,
00:21
and a son
00:23
who found himself behind bars
due to a broken-down judicial system.
00:25
He was framed for a murder
he didn't commit
00:30
and was sentenced to the gallows.
00:33
There were two victims of this murder --
the victim who actually died in the murder
00:36
and Manson, who had been
sentenced to prison
00:40
for an offense which he did not commit.
00:43
He was locked up in a cell,
eight by seven,
00:47
with 13 other grown-up men
00:49
for 23 and a half hours a day.
00:52
Food was not guaranteed that you'd get.
00:55
And I remember yesterday,
00:59
as I walked into the room where I was,
01:00
I imagined the kind of cell
that Manson would have been living in.
01:04
Because the toilet --
01:07
The row of the small rooms
01:09
that were there were slightly bigger
than the eight-by-seven cell.
01:10
But being in that cell
as he awaited the executioner --
01:14
because in prison,
he did not have a name --
01:17
Manson was known by a number.
01:20
He was just a statistic.
01:22
He did not know how long he would wait.
01:25
The wait could have been a minute,
01:28
the executioner could have come
the next minute,
01:30
the next day,
01:32
or it could have taken 30 years.
01:33
The wait had no end.
01:37
And in the midst of the excruciating pain,
01:40
the mental torture,
01:43
the many unanswered questions
that Manson faced,
01:46
he knew he was not
going to play the victim.
01:50
He refused to play the role of the victim.
01:53
He was angry at the justice system
that had put him behind bars.
01:56
But he knew the only way
he could change that justice system
02:01
or help other people get justice
02:04
was not to play the victim.
02:06
Change came to Manson
when he decided to embrace forgiveness
02:09
for those who had put him in prison.
02:13
I speak that as a fact.
02:17
Because I know who Manson is.
02:20
I am Manson.
02:24
My real name is Peter Manson Ouko.
02:26
And after my conviction,
02:30
after that awakening of forgiveness,
02:31
I had this move
02:35
to help change the system.
02:37
I already decided I was not
going to be a victim anymore.
02:40
But how was I going to help
change a system
02:44
that was bringing in
younger inmates every day
02:46
who deserve to be with their families?
02:49
So I started mobilizing my colleagues
in prison, my fellow inmates,
02:52
to write letters and memoranda
to the justice system,
02:56
to the Judicial Service Commission,
03:00
the numerous task forces
that had been set up
03:03
in our country, Kenya,
03:06
to help change the constitution.
03:07
And we decided to grasp at those --
03:10
to clutch at those trolls,
if I may use that word --
03:12
if only to make the justice system work,
03:15
and work for all.
03:18
Just about the same time,
03:21
I met a young university
graduate from the UK,
03:22
called Alexander McLean.
03:25
Alexander had come in with three or four
of his colleagues from university
03:28
in their gap year,
03:31
and they wanted to help assist,
03:32
set up a library in Kamiti Maximum Prison,
03:35
which if you Google,
03:38
you will see is written as one
of the 15 worst prisons in the world.
03:39
That was then.
03:43
But when Alexander came in,
03:45
he was a young 20-year-old boy.
03:46
And I was on death row at that time.
03:48
And we took him under our wing.
03:51
It was an honest trust issue.
03:53
He trusted us, even though
we were on death row.
03:56
And through that trust,
03:59
we saw him and his colleagues
from the university
04:00
refurbish the library
with the latest technology
04:03
and set up the infirmary
to very good standards
04:06
so that those of us falling sick in prison
04:10
would not necessarily
have to die in indignity.
04:13
Having met Alexander,
04:17
I had a chance,
04:20
and he gave me the opportunity
and the support,
04:21
to enroll for a university degree
at the University of London.
04:24
Just like Mandela
studied from South Africa,
04:28
I had a chance to study
at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.
04:31
And two years later,
04:35
I became the first graduate of the program
04:37
from the University of London
from within the prison system.
04:39
Having graduated, what happened next --
04:44
(Applause)
04:46
Thank you.
04:50
(Applause)
04:51
Having graduated,
04:52
now I felt empowered.
04:54
I was not going to play
the helpless victim.
04:56
But I felt empowered
not only to assist myself,
04:58
to prosecute my own case,
05:01
but also to assist the other inmates
05:03
who are suffering the similar injustices
that have just been spoken about here.
05:06
So I started writing
legal briefs for them.
05:11
With my other colleagues in prison,
we did as much as we could.
05:13
That wasn't enough.
05:19
Alexander McLean
05:23
and his team
at the African Prisons Project
05:24
decided to support more inmates.
05:28
And as I'm speaking to you today,
05:30
there are 63 inmates and staff
in the Kenya Prison Service
05:32
studying law at the University of London
through distance learning.
05:36
(Applause)
05:40
These are changemakers
who are being motivated
05:45
not only to assist
the most indolent in society,
05:49
but also to help the inmates
and others get access to justice.
05:52
Down there in my prison cell,
something kept stirring me.
05:59
The words of Martin Luther King
kept hitting me.
06:03
And he was always telling me,
"Pete, if you can't fly,
06:07
you can run.
06:12
And if you can't run,
06:14
you can walk.
06:16
But if you can't walk,
06:18
then you can crawl.
06:20
But whatever it is, whatever it takes,
06:22
just keep on moving."
06:24
And so I had this urge to keep moving.
06:26
I still have this urge
to keep moving in whatever I do.
06:29
Because I feel the only way
we can change our society,
06:31
the only way we can change
the justice system --
06:35
which has really improved
in our country --
06:37
is to help get the systems right.
06:39
So, on 26th October last year,
after 18 years in prison,
06:42
I walked out of prison
on presidential pardon.
06:47
I'm now focused on helping APP --
the African Prisons Project --
06:51
achieve its mandate
of training and setting up
06:54
the first law school
and legal college behind bars.
06:57
Where we are going to train --
07:01
(Applause)
07:03
Where we are going to train
inmates and staff
07:06
not only to assist their fellow inmates,
07:10
but to assist the entire
wider society of the poor
07:12
who cannot access legal justice.
07:15
So as I speak before you today,
07:19
I stand here in the full knowledge
that we can all reexamine ourselves,
07:21
we can all reexamine our situations,
07:27
we can all reexamine our circumstances
07:30
and not play the victim narrative.
07:33
The victim narrative
will not take us anywhere.
07:36
I was behind bars, yeah.
07:40
But I never felt and I was not a prisoner.
07:42
The basic thing I got to learn
07:48
was that if I thought,
07:50
and if you think, you can,
07:52
you will.
07:55
But if you sit thinking that you can't,
07:56
you won't.
07:59
It's as simple as that.
08:01
And so I'm encouraged
by the peaceful revolutionaries
08:04
I've heard on this stage.
08:06
The world needs you now,
the world needs you today.
08:08
And as I finish my talk,
08:12
I'd just like to ask
each and every single one of you here,
08:15
wonderful thinkers,
changemakers, innovators,
08:19
the wonderful global citizens
we have at TED,
08:23
just remember the words
of Martin Luther King.
08:26
Let them continue ringing
in your heart and your life.
08:29
Whatever it is,
08:33
wherever you are,
08:35
whatever it takes,
08:36
keep on moving.
08:38
Thank you.
08:39
(Applause)
08:40
Thank you.
08:44
(Applause)
08:45

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About the speaker:

Peter Ouko - Prison reform advocate
Pete Ouko champions access to justice for inmates in Africa.

Why you should listen

Twenty years ago, Peter Ouko walked into a police station in  Kenya seeking answers to the circumstances under which his wife had been found murdered and the body dumped next to the police station fence. Unbeknown to him, the hunter would soon find himself as the hunted, and in a journey through the then broken down judicial system, he found himself convicted and sent to the gallows for a crime he maintains he did not commit.

Instead of bitterness, Ouko decided to forgive his tormentors and make the best of his time in prison, becoming the first inmate to graduate with a University of London Diploma in Law while behind bars. He is currently in his final year as an LLB student in the same University.

In his dual role as an Ambassador of the African Prisons Project and Founder of the Youth Safety Awareness Initiative, Ouko today champions access to justice for inmates and the indolent in society while using social enterprise to advocate for a crime free world. His goal: to demystify justice and have a crime free world underpinned by the rule of the law.

More profile about the speaker
Peter Ouko | Speaker | TED.com