Alexander McLean: Compassionate World-Changer

His organization is empowering a community of changemakers within Africa’s prison system.

Stooping in a dark, dank prison cell, a young man strokes the hand of a dying prisoner. The prisoner is handcuffed to a soiled cot reeking of vomit and urine. The young man doesn’t even notice. He sees only with his heart; something not many people would accuse barristers of having. But this young legal mind, Alexander McLean has a heart large enough to embrace the suffering prisoners of an entire continent.

The Happy Accident

McLean should never have been born. He’s a child of accidental birth, at least to his parents; a Jamaican father and English mother. But when God wants to answer the prayers of the forgotten, He creates their solution in His own way. That solution was a little boy called Alex. Born in the southern suburbs of London, England, McLean endured the fitful reactions of 1970s society to mixed race children. Nevertheless, he grew up in a loving home surrounded by loving relatives, including a beloved gran.

The Caring Soul

The signs of McLean’s exceptionally caring heart could be seen at a very young age. As a boy, he loved animals and raised a veritable zoo of small creatures in the garden shed. His instincts and desire to show love for the helpless became evident. This characteristic was reinforced by his faith and the need to live that faith in his daily life. McLean was also an excellent student and longed to expand his education the way other kids long for recess. He knew there were more things in the world he should care about and wanted to know what they were.

 A Hunger for Justice

His hunger for education had a turn of luck when a highly-regarded school offered him a spot vacated by another student. The school had a scholarship enabling McLean to make good use of this opportunity, as his parents could not have otherwise afforded the tuition. He became fascinated by criminal justice and the death penalty during his time at Kingston Grammar School. While other boys’ childhood heroes were Superman, his were Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. A foreshadowing of his life’s work was beginning to take shape.

Tender-Hearted Volunteer

At the age of 14, McLean began his first job caring for a paraplegic with multiple sclerosis. Two years later he volunteered at a hospice, caring for the dying while his peers were busy meeting mates at the pub. At the age of holding your girlfriend’s hand being your top priority, he instead chose to hold the hands of those who had no one. He was scared of course but soon realized the dying people were scared, too. McLean was born with a courageous selflessness and he didn’t hide it under a bushel; quite the opposite.

Gap Year Anomaly

McLean became completely invested in compassionate volunteerism. One day, after reading an article in Telegraph Magazine about the work of Dr. Anne Merriman and her hospice in Africa, he knew what he must do. He would spend his “gap year,” the year between high school and university, helping Dr. Merriman. Despite his parents’ strong reservations and the refusal of the African hospice to take a volunteer so young, McLean persisted and finally flew to Uganda to arrive on their doorstep. His two-week sojourn became a six-month saga of service. What he experienced in Uganda would become his destiny.

Patients, Prisoners, & Reckless Neglect

The shock of seeing his new work place left an indelible impression on 19-year-old McLean. His work began visiting patients at Mulago, Kampala’s largest hospital, which also functioned as the infirmary for nearby prisons. The conditions were so horrific they almost defied description: terminally ill patients lying on the floors in pools of their own blood, filthy squalor and no blankets, beds, or food. Morphine was unavailable due to the high cost. Cancer patients had only aspirin for pain relief.

Woes Beyond All Measure

The ones who captured McLean’s attention the most were the prisoners who had no one to care for them or bring them food and clean sheets. They’d been cast off by not only their families but Ugandan society as a whole. It is estimated that 30-40% of those in Ugandan prisons are also innocent. Convictions caused by revenge, bureaucracy, wrongful accusations, and corruption are rampant. Adding to this misery is the lack of legal knowledge or assistance the average Ugandan has at their disposal.

A Cause to Live For

Upon returning to London, McLean buckled down and earned a law degree while raising money to help the prisoners who caused such a rift in his caring soul. He couldn’t bear their conditions even if the patients themselves strove to do so. As he recalled the eyes of the dying and their gratitude that someone cared enough to show them a last moment of kindness, McLean knew his heart had found its purpose in the world. While still a law student, McLean founded the African Prisons Project (APP) in 2007.

The African Prisons Project

He returned to Uganda and started his life’s work doing everything humanly possible for these forgotten people. He brought them chickens and goats to eat. He brought tarps to shield them from the hot sun, as many cells were without ceilings. As his project became more professional with local volunteers, they built vegetable gardens and classrooms; brought writing materials and law books. Prisoners were taught how to fight a corrupt system from the inside. His organization even educates prison wardens and guards about not only prisoner’s rights but basic human rights. As a result, many prisoners hungrily studied the law, grateful for the chance at hope. They won their freedom.

Empowering the Powerless

APP currently supports thousands of imprisoned Ugandans and hopes to expand throughout Africa. McLean’s’ vision is for APP to not be necessary at all. After seeing so many wrongfully convicted people over the years he believes there should no longer be death rows. He is keenly aware that every person has the capacity to do good and evil. But he lives the belief that redemption is possible with fierce compassion and kindness. He proves it every day.

Agents of Change

This October, there is cause for celebration. Five Kenyan prisoners / prison officers completed their law degrees over the summer and will graduate with 11 others, during a graduation ceremony at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. APP is returning to Kamiti where they hosted the first ever TEDx event held in an African prison, back in 2015, and the first held in a maximum security prison anywhere in the world. The 16 APP graduates will include current and former inmates and prison staff who have successfully completed their Bachelor of Laws undergraduate degree with the University of London, following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela. Be sure to watch the inspiring TEDx video, TEDxKamitiPrison.

Learn more about APP and the work they do to bring dignity and hope for those incarcerated in Africa at africanprisons.org.