When I left my job at a law firm years ago and took a gamble going full time into an unproven legal tech startup, there were several things I hoped would happen. One just happened. This week, Zimbabwe launched a virtual court platform that we built from the ground up. This launch feels more significant. Rather than simply developing technology, as we have done since the beginning, we have inspired new possibilities and successfully transformed a place where prisoners were once sent to die into an arena of justice. Here’s the story.
A former law school classmate contacted me a few years ago, wondering how an online court system would work in Zimbabwe. She was working with an organization that wanted to help the judiciary set up online courts. This set me on a path to design and build an online court system from the ground up. During this process, we quickly realized that Zoom or Skype would not have worked for a variety of reasons, including the inability to implement reverse billing to provide free access to court users in a country where more than 70% of people cannot afford high-speed broadband. Off-the-shelf solutions also presented challenges in integrating voice over internet protocol systems to allow access even without a smart phone.
Replacing the dark with the light of justice
Part of the process of establishing this system included visiting Zimbabwe’s largest prison, Chikurubi Maximum, to conduct a site assessment of the location from which prisoners could connect. When I arrived, the officials had already chosen what I thought was the ideal room. It was well-lit, carpeted, and soundproof, with clean holding cells just outside. It was almost too perfect. I couldn’t help but ask how they had found such a room in a prison that has long struggled with overcrowding. The response surprised me.
When Zimbabwe still carried out executions, this was the waiting room for death row executions. In fact, the gallows were just a few steps away behind a locked sliding door. It was soundproof to keep the screams of dying inmates at bay. The cells outside used to house those sentenced to death, and the entire space appeared pristine and unused because an execution had not taken place there in over 15 years. While the death penalty remains legal in Zimbabwe, the government has not carried out an execution since 2005. The unofficial reason for this de facto moratorium is that the government has failed to find a hangman. With this launch, we have created an extra reason : any future hangman might need a new work station. This makes me very optimistic, and I’m hoping that by repurposing this site, this is a sign that no executions will ever take place.
A journey in the dead of night
When I left Chikurubi, I was excited about how close we were to torching such a historically dark place with the light of justice. Interestingly, something else happened that day that opened my eyes to even more possibilities. Just as we were leaving the prison complex, a prison guard asked if we could provide a ride to a woman carrying a child on her back. During that ride, the woman shared a heartbreaking story. She had traveled from Gwanda, 400 kilometers away, in the hopes of seeing her imprisoned husband. Except she couldn’t see him because the prison was not accepting visitors at the time due to COVID-19. She had been looking forward to sharing the news that their oldest daughter had excelled in her high school exams and received a scholarship to study in South Africa. Now, she had to make the long journey back home in the middle of the night.
The future we can create
In the days following my visit to Chikurubi, I wondered if the woman and her child had gotten home safely. I also felt terrible about not offering them a place to sleep that night. I certainly had extra space, thanks to my then-one-year-old bravely refusing to sleep alone. I ended up putting my worry and guilt to good use, sketching out a plan to modify the system we built to allow for online prison visits. By partnering with existing community spaces like district development offices across the country and deploying the system we have already built, we can easily enable people like the mother I met to meaningfully stay in touch with their loved ones in prison. This idea hasn’t taken off, but I’m hopeful that we’ll find the right partners to make this our next adventure.
We should do more. And we will.