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Behind Bars: Nootbaar Institute's Global Justice Program Aids Ugandan Prisoners

By Nate Ethell ('08)


On the far side of the world, School of Law professor Jim Gash (JD '93) sits in the Parrot Bar of the Rwenzori Traveller's Inn, one of just a few lodging facilities in the small African town of Fort Portal, Uganda. Busy prepping for the week ahead, he is deep in discussion with the newest batch of students joining the School of Law's Global Justice Program. It's just one arm of the Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics, a $10 million campaign priority fully funded by Herbert and Elinor Nootbaar.

It's hardly the first time Pepperdine has served in Uganda; in fact, it's Professor Gash's 11th trip to East Africa in just three years, where as director of the Global Justice Program he has partnered with Uganda's criminal justice system to aid juveniles awaiting trial in remand homes. But unlike past years where Pepperdine's judiciary work focused on children, this year's Global Justice students are working on a new challenge—how to empty Uganda's overcrowded prisons.

"On the adult side of the ledger, Uganda has placed more than 10,000 persons accused of crimes 'on remand,'" Professor Gash says. "Many currently are being held without a trial or even a lawyer—some for longer than five years." Because of the success Professor Gash and Pepperdine students achieved in 2012 implementing the pilot program J-FASTER (Judiciary Facilitating Access to Swift Trial and Efficient Resolution) for juvenile cases, they have been given permission by Ugandan officials to test a new pilot program for adults.


After years of discussion with the judiciary, the new program is introducing plea bargaining into the judicial system, a relatively foreign concept to Ugandan lawyers. "This is why prisons—compounded with a critical lack of resources—are overflowing with detainees awaiting trial," Professor Gash explains.

The prison selected for the program is called Katojo, a detention facility located just outside Fort Portal, where 320 of the prison's 874 prisoners are on remand. The goal: to prepare in only five days 56 of the prison's oldest cases for speedy resolution.

With just a handful of lawyers, translators, and students—including nine from the School of Law—the legal emissaries have formed several groups with at least one Ugandan lawyer and law student and one American lawyer and law student. Back at the Parrot Bar—now affectionately dubbed the "War Room"—each group has feverishly briefed nearly a dozen case files before interviewing each of their clients in preparation for a hearing and, hopefully, a plea.

"It's tough because in the prison it's a 'lips are sealed' culture," says Dana Zacharia, program manager for the Nootbaar Institute and the Global Justice Program. "So as our teams were interviewing, the key challenge was creating a culture of honesty while demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of each prisoner's case."


The experience working directly with these prisoners, Professor Gash says, has been utterly transformative. "Students are returning from Uganda with a new view of the legal environment in the world and what they are equipped to do with their law degree," reflects Professor Gash. "They are coming back to the United States saying that they didn't fully appreciate the tools we give them in law school or how they could put them to use. In Uganda, our students have clients for the first time, and the gravity of what they are doing—what is at stake—has sobered them in all the best ways."

To better serve these efforts, the Nootbaar Institute each year funds a Nootbaar Fellow, a position filled this year by School of Law alumnus David Nary (JD '12). The Nootbaar Fellow serves in residence in Uganda for an entire year, becoming embedded within the Ugandan judiciary as an essential on-the-ground member of the team. "David was in Uganda in the summer of 2010 during my third trip and was a superstar among the students that year," Professor Gash says. "As the on-site project manager, he has been a critical part of our work with the adult prison. We couldn't do what we're doing—at least not as effectively—without someone like David on the ground at all times."


Alumni are getting involved in other ways too, contributing their time, talents, and financial resources to the work of the Global Justice Program. Alumnae Sophia Hamilton (JD '11) and Jessie Johnston (JD '11) volunteered the full week this summer to work with the team in Uganda. And after hearing the good work the Global Justice Program is doing there, alumnus Darryl Towell (JD '95) and his wife, Karyl (JD '96), decided to give back by funding others who could serve.

"All too often, mission statements remain lofty words on a website," Darryl explains. "But the Global Justice Program is one way Pepperdine delivers on its commitment to strengthening lives for purpose, service, and leadership. By partnering with fellow alumni through the Nootbaar Institute, we can work together to deliver peace and justice to those in need on the other side of the globe."


Following the 56 cases prepared as part of the project, nearly 30 more cases have been added. Of these, many will have no trial because of successful plea deals. The remaining cases have been fully prepped and will be ready for trial later this year.

In the meantime, Professor Gash says he will be returning to Uganda often in order to monitor and encourage the new infrastructure as it matures. "This pilot program was our first effort of taking the juvenile justice restructure and moving it into the adult realm. As they issue new guidelines for sentencing and plea bargaining, our Global Justice team will continue to provide counsel and support as the Uganda judiciary better structures its rule of law."