Today I met Sam

Posted: 20 January 2014

Blog from Sam

In many ways we were similar.

He was a year older than me. We talked for a long time about football. He supported Manchester United. I told him I supported Spurs. He laughed and said that nobody in Kenya supported them. He told me that one day he wanted to visit the UK. I told him what live Premiership games were like (and how expensive they were!). I told him how crazy live Kenyan football was in comparison. We got on well.

He told me he wanted to be a Gospel musician. He said if we met again, he would show me the CD he was trying to release.

He had dreams. Big dreams.
In another world, he could have been me.

But in many ways we were different.

I didn't meet Sam at a party, or a friend's house. I met Sam in prison. He was charged with an offence he most likely didn't commit. His story was that he and 2 friends were on their way to a friend's graduation party, when police stopped them, beat them up, and accused them of going to the party to cause some mischief. The exact offence they were charged with was 'preparation to commit a felony'.

Sam had a young wife, and 2 children (1 on the way). He worked as a garbage collector, earning just over £1 a day. There was no way he could afford his 20,000Ksh cash bail (roughly £140).

This was his story anyway. Maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe he was lying. Maybe he saw the white guy enter the prison and thought that if he gave him a sob story, he might help him get out of this hellhole. Every inmate tells us they're innocent and therefore arriving at a true version of events can be extremely difficult for lawyers. A combination of experience, good judgment and common sense helps you work it out. Something was telling me that Sam was being honest.

In Kenya, the police regularly round up people that haven't done anything wrong, and charge them with a fictitious offence. If it's near the end of the month and they are short on cash, they will often arrest random people in crime hotspots, and force them to pay a bribe to avoid arrest. They are a huge barrier to justice.

Sam's was just one story. There are hundreds, if not thousands of other similar tales. Every week, a team from CLEAR spends some time interviewing clients at one of the prisons in Nairobi. We are only able to do this because CLEAR has spent years developing a strong working relationship with the prison guards and officials. We talk to as many inmates as possible in the allotted time; hearing their stories and offering basic legal advice when we can. For many, we are their only hope. On the last trip, none of the inmates had seen their charge sheet or witness statements. This is a basic right. As none had lawyers, without these documents they would have no chance of knowing the case against them, let alone providing a formidable defence.

After each prison visit, we have a round-table discussion, where we assess the individual cases, and decide what steps we can take. Where there are particular injustices, we offer legal representation. After discussing Sam's case with the rest of the team, we agreed to view the police file and if his story corroborated, represent him.

Yet what perhaps struck me the most about Sam's story, and what left in me a lasting impact, was his attitude. He was confident, smiling, full of joy, and had an unwavering faith. "This is just part of God's plan" he told me gleefully. "I am happy because he has put me here for a reason". I could not comprehend this. I sat there speechless. Here was a young man with bags of potential, living behind bars, eating the same bland food every day, and regularly being subjected to the cruelty of prison officials. Yet he had a faith the size of a mountain. And opposite him was a guy who questions God when he gets a bad grade or a job rejection. Sam may not have had much, but he had one thing more precious than gold, that no police officer or prison official could take away from him.

Today I met Sam. And I won't forget it.