February 01, 2014

A Paralegal Fights Injustice in Prisons

February 2014

Fatumatu, a young Guinean paralegal, is so dedicated to visiting prisoners in her hometown of Kankan that she says that the prison “has become a new home.” Splitting her time between the holding cells of local police stations and Kankan’s central prison, Fatumatu meets with prisoners—many of whom are being held unlawfully—who otherwise would have no access to legal representation. Since embarking on paralegal work in July 2013, Fatumatu says she has come across many cases in which false accusations, corruption and poor case management led to unjust imprisonment or prolonged pre-trial detention.

Since embarking on paralegal work in July 2013, Fatumatu says she has come across many cases in which false accusations, corruption and poor case management led to unjust imprisonment or prolonged pre-trial detention. 

She feels her time working with ABA ROLI on this program has been well spent, as she has already been able to help many illegally detained prisoners win their freedom. One example is that of Amadou*, a man whom she first met in a cramped holding cell at a local police station. While Guinean law requires that detainees appear before a judge within two days of arrest, Amadou had been held without charge for six days. Fatumatu reminded the investigating police officer of the applicable law, but he refused to release Amadou. Frustrated, she enlisted the help of a lawyer from the Les Mêmes Droits pour Tous (MDT), a Guinean human rights group, who advised her to speak to the police station’s deputy director about the case. The deputy director, who had been unaware that Amadou was illegally held, ordered the officer to charge him formally or to release him. Shortly thereafter, Amadou was freed due to lack of evidence and spared what could have been weeks or months of unlawful detention.

With funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Right and Labor, ABA ROLI and MDT have been working since 2012 to provide legal aid to prisoners who, like Amadou, are in unlawful detention in Kankan and N’Zérékoré, two towns in Guinea’s interior. ABA ROLI and MDT developed a training curriculum for paralegals, and in November 2013, MDT used the curriculum to train 14 paralegals chosen through a competitive selection process.

Many paralegals, including Fatumatu, are law or social science graduates who are interested in human rights and who believe that paralegal work is an opportunity to serve their communities while gaining valuable field experience. The paralegals’ training covered Guinean criminal procedures and international human rights law, and it also helped the paralegals develop client counseling and negotiation skills. Fatumatu and her fellow paralegals are now receiving monthly trainings from MDT and have thus far assisted more than 250 prisoners.

For Fatumatu, as with many of the paralegals, the role has become more than just a job. The paralegals provide not only legal advice, but also assistance in addressing other challenges the prisoners face. They advocate for health services and sanitary living conditions, and against overcrowding and abuse by guards. For those in need, the paralegals contact prisoners’ family members, who can provide clothing or food. Fatumatu once bought a detainee medicine with her own money, and, on several occasions, she has reunited prisoners, including minors, with estranged family members.

Although most of the paralegals are recent college graduates, they receive only a small stipend to cover transportation and communication expenses. When asked why she is so motivated to help what is an often neglected group of people, Fatumatu simply says, “We are all human.” 

To learn more about our work in Guinea, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org.