That’s a Wrap, Freshman Year Edition

Well, I did it. I survived a year of dorm life, gen eds (chemistry, I’m looking at you), late nights and 5 AMs, procrastination on an Olympic level, and learning all sorts of new things. I talked to strangers, learned to row, got my car towed, j’ai appris un peu de français, and had more campus food than I could have ever wanted. Final grades haven’t come out yet, but I’m crossing my fingers for all As and have moved on to trying to figure out plans for this summer. I’m hoping to volunteer at one of the clinics in OKC and maybe use a little of my Spanish knowledge there, as well as getting a summer job with an actual income. I’ve finally got housing lined up for next semester along with 18 hours of classes that I’m equal parts excited about and terrified for. I’m still keeping my head above water and I honestly don’t think I would be happier anyplace else. So here’s to a somewhat successful first year (and hopefully 3 more to follow). I’ll try to update at least once or twice this summer when I get my plans figured out and get started working and/or if my mom follows through on her (semi-joking, I think) plans to whisk me away on vacation somewhere for a week or two because my dad “never takes her anywhere”. So good luck with wherever you are in your life, and thanks for catching a little glimpse of where I’m at in mine. 🙂

Remand

  1. Remand \ri-ˈmand\ (verb): to send (an accused) back into custody by court order (as pending trial) :  turn (a prisoner) over for continued detention : the sending of a prisoner or accused person back into custody (or sometimes admitting him or her to bail) to await trial or continuation of his or her trial
  2. Remand \ri-ˈmand\ (noun): a powerful documentary that everyone should watch before they die

 

At the end of May, I attended a screening of the short documentary “Remand” with the OU College of Law as an international event.  The documentary was a beautifully executed, unsettling, and candid look at the injustice and abysmal conditions in the prison system of many countries. Remand takes its viewers into the prison system of Uganda through the eyes of an American lawyer Jim Gash, a group of law students from Pepperdine University, and Henry, an African boy placed on trial for two crimes he did not commit and forced to remain on remand for years.

The next part of this is going to be a summary/ things that I learned section, and will undoubtedly include spoilers, so this is your warning; if you need to, close your eyes and scroll to the end 🙂

Henry ended up on remand after his family was robbed by a herdsman who was later found by the mob, brought to Henry’s family’s house, and beaten to death. Henry, his father, and his brother were all arrested even though they asked the mob to show the man mercy and did not have any part in his killing. They were sent to Luzira Upper prison, a facility for prisoners who have committed serious offences. The prisoners there are split by the colors of their clothes: white for death row,  yellow for remand, and orange for the lifers. The amount of people in yellow in the film was overwhelming. Luzira Upper Prison, at the time Henry was there, held 3,000 inmates. It was built for 600. The overcrowding caused issues with sleeping, feeding, and meeting medical requirements, and the terrible system lead to many misplaced files and files losing their position in the order they were to be seen by the judges. Prisoners, under Uganda’s justice system, wait years for their day in court, though many want to confess to their crimes and even believe they deserve their sentence. These people had been convicted of crimes including rape, murder, treason, terrorism, and aggravated robbery/defilement. And Henry was among them, innocent.

While he was on remand, he was sent with some of the other prisoners to a work camp. The camp’s boss, Rose, ordered Henry to beat a young prisoner, and when he tried to show the boy mercy, was ordered to bury him alive. Henry and a few other prisoners, unable to disobey orders but still wanting to show him mercy, only buried him to the neck then freed him after a few hours. The next day, the young boy tried to escape the camp and Rose ordered 4 different prisoners to beat him. The boy was beaten 40 strokes with a stick and he died. Rose and Henry were charged with murder. When their case was brought to court, 1 lawyer was called to defend both Rose and Henry and none of the juveniles at the camp or Henry were allowed to testify, so even though Henry was completely innocent, he was convicted after the lawyer chose to defend Rose and blame him. But in May 2013, Jim Gash was given special permission to represent Henry as the first American to appear as an advocate in Ugandan court. After 2 years of work to prove his innocence, Henry was exonerated on June 19, 2015 and allowed to walk free.

Along with Jim’s work with Henry, he and the law students form Pepperdine who traveled to Uganda over their summer vacation in 2014 were paired with Ugandan lawyers and students to help solve cases and implement a plea bargaining system in Uganda. One  of the students, James Brown, said, “You’re hearing about the worst days of someone’s life and they’re taking you through it from when they woke up to when they went to bed, and it’s rough.” They began working through the 8,500 committed remands and motivating prisoners to plead guilty to manslaughter charges, which do not necessitate capital punishment, so they could get out of remand and begin serving their sentences. Their reform efforts worked, and in the summer of 2015, Uganda had its first national plea bargaining conference. The system credited all of the prisoners with their time on remand, leading some prisoners to be released. This plea bargaining system has allowed the courts to hear cases at 1/5 the cost of the remand system, and Uganda has already set the example for many other African countries that have begun to begin work towards implementing plea bargains with their help. The documentary ended by saying that Henry is now a medical student.

After the documentary, we were lucky enough to have a Q & A session with Jim Gash. He was very down to earth and his passion for his work was immediately visible. He has made 20 trips to Uganda since 2010 and has done amazing work there every time he goes. He told us that the waiting time for juveniles on remand has gone from 2 years to 6 months, and that the Ugandan system had been through over 7,000 plea bargains since they left. He will return sometime this month for a women and leadership conference, anti-trafficking work, and more prison trips. He and Henry have weekly Skype calls, and Henry wanted to call and talk with us after the documentary but it was around 4 a.m. in Uganda and his alarm didn’t wake him up in time unfortunately. He is in his third year of medical school studying to be a cardiologist, and the younger brother who was convicted with him has also been exonerated is now in law school.

 

I have a notebook with two pages full of notes and comments about the documentary; it was informative, gripping, frustrating, and heartwarming, and it reignited my desire to do work similar to the work that Jim Gaff does, but in a more medical or mission- focused setting rather than a law setting. I love seeing the amazing changes that can be made when people work together to solve problems. One of the best parts of the documentary for me was seeing the process the Americans took with the Ugandans to reform their system and implement plea bargaining. They came in to the situation with a focus on developing relationships and asking “What do you need and how can we help you accomplish it?” rather than “Here is what you need and we’re going to fix it our way because we’re more developed so we know better.” It was refreshing to see the Americans working with the Ugandans to find solutions that would actually work for them and to implement these solutions in such a way that Uganda could continue to improve its system after the Americans left.

I would 100% recommend this documentary to anyone and everyone, especially anyone with even a remote interest in law. Its commentary on the power of ideas and of people who are willing to work for each other leaves a lasting mark and proves that with just those two things we can make dramatic and enduring changes.

OU Cousins Update/ Spanish Club?

So my international organizations for this year were a little unconventional. If you’ve been following, my OU Cousin Anita was supposed to go back to Taiwan after spending Christmas in Boston over the break. Instead, she ended up visiting an aunt in Canada, then came back to Oklahoma where she *heart eyes, clasps chest* met a boy. He was from Spain and they had met during the year when they were both filling out paperwork to apply to extend their study abroad term at OU. He got approved, but she did not and that seemed to be the end of it.

But since she was finished with all of the classes she needed for her degree and would just be going back and finding a job when she returned home, Anita decided to come back to Oklahoma and stay with some friends for a little while, then ended up in a fairytale romance with the Spanish boy and decided to stay even LONGER. We met up a while back to get food and she told me about him, showed me all of their cute pictures, and explained how she definitely hadn’t told her parents the reason why she was extending her stay again. A few days after we met up, she jetted off to Las Vegas, then the Grand Canyon, and then to Los Angeles. All of the pictures she sent me were amazing, and since I haven’t been to any of the places she got to travel to, I was quite envious as she told me about walking the strip in Vegas, taking in the sheer enormity of the Grand Canyon, and falling asleep on the beach in California. But my envy was in a way that was also full of excitement for her, and I am so glad she was able to have all of the amazing experiences she had while she was here. Anita is finally actually gone now (…I think), and I tried to text her a few weeks back but I think we may have to switch to email or Skype now that she’s off of her international phone plan. It was a happy surprise for me to get to see her one last time though, and I hope that I can have just as great of an experience next semester with OU Cousins.

I also joined and attended a meeting of the Spanish Club on campus, which turned out to be nothing like I expected. First of all, there was not a single word of Spanish spoken during the meeting. I was kind of under the impression that it would be a culture and conversation club, but I guess it’s more just culture. The meeting featured the University’s Diplomat in Residence, Rob Andrews. He is a Senior Foreign Service Officer who was assigned a term as the Diplomat in Residence for the Central Region of the US as well as being an adjunct professor at OU. He came and talked to the Spanish Club about career and internship opportunities with the US Department of State, specifically about becoming Consular Fellows. A Consular Fellow, for all of the non-foreign service experts out there, serves overseas in US embassies or consulates and carries out many of the same duties as Foreign Service Officers- interviewing visa/passport applicants, adjudicating (approving or denying) visa/passport applications, fielding questions from and providing protection for people in their specific country and the US, and other similar tasks- but in a 4-5 year non-career appointment rather than a long term job. Mr. Andrews described the major tasks and everyday duties of a Consular Fellow, the application process, and the 6 languages that the State Department is looking for (one of which, not-so-coincidentally, is Spanish). The presentation was super informative, and the job actually seemed really cool. If I wasn’t trying to get into medical school I would probably seriously consider applying for it. But the club itself wasn’t what I was expecting, and I didn’t have the time to attend another meeting to see what else Spanish club had to offer. I’m not sure if I will try it out again next year or try to find something a little different. The university has just started a model World Health Organization, and I’ve heard from a few people that the model UN group on campus is also a lot of fun. But I’ve got a whole summer between me and the next organization I decide to dip my toes into, so I’ll cross that proverbial bridge when I get there. For now I’m just content with my interesting, unconventional, and  unexpected first year of experiences with international organizations.