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Alexander McLean named 2020 Grinnell Prize recipient


President Anne Harris announced on Wednesday that Alexander McLean, the founder and director general of international nonprofit organization Justice Defenders, has won the 2020 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize. The prize, Harris wrote in the announcement email, “honors individuals who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and who show creativity, commitment, and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change.”

McLean started Justice Defenders (then called the African Prisons Project) in 2007 after realizing the level of mistreatment of prisoners in a Ugandan maximum security prison that was sending patients to the hospital where he worked.

“I realized there are people whose lives are judged to have no value by their community or government,” McLean wrote in a statement on Justice Defenders’ website. “This left me furious and heartbroken, yet motivated to bring dignity to those deemed worthless.”

The U.K.-based organization began as an effort to improve prison conditions, creating health clinics and education programs for prisoners. But in 2017, the group’s goals shifted from improving prisons to increasing access to justice, and the African Prisons Project relaunched in 2020 with its current name, Justice Defenders.

Today, Justice Defenders is a multinational organization with offices in the U.K., Uganda, Kenya and the U.S. that’s run by lawyers, prisoners, prison administrators, judges, and supporters of the group’s mission. It aims to provide legal and paralegal training to communities that lack the necessary education resources, as well as free legal advice to prisoners and people in underserved communities.

“Prisoners, ex-prisoners, and prison staff offer unique perspectives on legal systems. Yet their experiences are rarely acknowledged,” McLean wrote. “Bringing them together with prosecutors, the police, judges, experienced lawyers, and academics creates remarkable possibilities for good.”

Inequality and mistreatment in the criminal justice system has been a hot-button issue at Grinnell in recent years. The College uses prison labor to produce dorm furnishings, a practice that was heavily protested by the Grinnell chapter of activist coalition Million Hoodies during a prison-divestment campaign that started in the spring of 2019. As of now, the College has made no indication that it will move away from its ties to Iowa’s prison industry.



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