Public legal education at HMP Oakwood

In this series of blog posts, Paul Dale, an Associate Lecturer at The Open University, final year law students Jon Stitcher, Lucy Tomlinson and Sean Harker, and  ‘prisoner mentor’, Malcolm, reflect on their experiences of teaching public legal education in Her Majesty’s Prison Oakwood.

From left to right – Tammia, St Giles Trust; Paul, OU Associate Lecturer; and final year students, Jon, Lucy and Sean


I’m Paul, the academic lead for the Open Justice project at HMP Oakwood in Wolverhampton; a joint venture with the St Giles Trust. Over the course of March and April, I was delighted to lead three final year law students to present legal education at Oakwood. The scheme is very much in its infancy, so our remit was to have an initial meeting with St Giles ‘prisoner mentors’ to discover any general legal issues that our students could research and present findings on. Three students were chosen out of some thirty applicants. Our first prison visit in March was a real eye opener for students. We met Steve and Tammia, from the St Giles Trust, who gave the students a tour of the prison. We were able to see inside the wings and meet prisoners, one of whom offered to show us his cell. Any hesitations or stereotypical views the students had of prisoners were soon dissipated. We then had a more formal meeting with six ‘prisoner mentors’. These were guys who were on longer term sentences and assisted others within the prison not only for rehabilitation purposes, but with day to day life. They were a very positive bunch of guys and enjoyed engaging with the wider community – two were OU graduates who had studied in prison! They identified nine issues for us to research, with a deeper concentration on joint enterprise, indeterminate sentences, the destruction of Crown Court transcripts and racial bias in sentencing. The meeting went well, and we stayed behind afterwards for coffee and a chat. On our second meeting we presented some initial findings and were also guided by their own research. Our third meeting was the presentation of our research and we gave them a folder of our findings. Overall, we established a good rapport with these guys, on all of our meetings we stayed behind for a more informal chat. The students were able to research new areas of law, but now from a more practical point of view instead a purely academic one. The prisoner mentors were already very knowledgeable on the law and these issues, and though they knew many of the fundamental issues involved, we were able to provide some nuanced views and introduce new lines of research for them to follow. Our remit was not to give legal advice, but to point them in directions for further legal research. It was a privilege to be given the chance to be able to meet people who had been directly affected by the legal issues that have been studied on the LLB. For instance, a number of them were convicted under old ‘joint enterprise’ rules that have been changed in the recent Supreme Court case of R v Jogee (2016). Lord Neuberger held in this case that previous court decisions ‘had taken a wrong turn’ for some thirty years in their application of joint enterprise. So, now meeting offenders who had been subject to this misapplication of law brings knowledge learned from studies to whole new level. Additionally, one of the prisoner mentors, Malcolm (an OU graduate who has authored a blog post here) was a party on the prisoner voting cases that have been back and forth in the Supreme Court and ECtHR. It was informative, for both the students and myself, to get an understanding of practical application of the legal issues that we have researched. If there is one thing that I will take away from the project, on a more personal level, it was the realisation that these guys were something more than their label. It is easy to categorise offenders based on their crimes, and label them because of a serious crime that they have committed. However, I got a sense of the individual behind their crime and subsequent label; they were a delight to meet, all had very positive attitudes to life in general, relished in their own personal development and had hope for their future. I do not think that I have met such a positive group of people and I feel privileged to have been part of the Open Justice project. As an added bonus and a direct result of the project, one of the students has a potential opportunity of working with offenders through the St Giles Trust in the future. Though the project is in its infancy, we can hopefully take it forward in years to come so that more students can gain benefit on both a professional and personal level. I’d like to thank HMP Oakwood for their support in the project, Tammia and Steve from the St Giles Trust for their organisation and enthusiastic approach, Jon, Lucy and Sean for their hard work and professionalism in their legal research and the St Giles Trust ‘prisoner mentors’ for their welcome and hospitality. Everyone worked together to create what turned in to worthwhile project.


Today I have finished my research project with the St Giles Trust at HMP Oakwood working with Prisoners. It has been an incredibly eye-opening experience. I went into this project with an archaic opinion of what prison life would be like. I was expecting it to be more like the TV show Porridge or the film The Shawshank Redemption. The reality is vastly different. Yes, we were working with the highly trusted prisoners, men who’d used their time in prison to great effect. They’d taken rehabilitation courses, they’d educated themselves, but more than that, they were educating and mentoring other prisoners. My first moments inside the prison I was quite apprehensive, we were taken on to a prison block where the prisoners were wandering around, quite freely and I hadn’t noticed any guards. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that I was perfectly safe and when interacting with the prisoners whom we were there to assist, I often didn’t realise they were prisoners but thought they were St Giles staff members. We chatted with these men, they told us their issues and we went away and we researched these issues. The whole time I was doing this, I very selfishly was thinking how good this would look on my CV. By the last meeting with the prisoners I’d come to realise how awful that was of me. When we finished our work, we left the prison to carry on with our lives, our degrees, our futures. For some of the people we were helping the future is so uncertain. They will remain in prison, some on indeterminate sentences and as much as I wanted to give them good news, unfortunately the outlook is quite bleak. I have taken so many positives out of this experience. On a purely selfish note, I have enhanced my CV and gained valuable experience in understanding how life in a prison works. But, I also feel like I have contributed to helping these men by taking the time to research issues of huge importance to them. But they have changed me, my views on prisoners and prison life are now much higher. I no longer think that we should be locking people up and throwing away the key but that prison should be a fully integrated rehabilitation programme working towards re-integrating these people back into society. I want to thank the Open University for selecting me for this project, for the St Giles Trust for running this pilot scheme and for working so closely with us, but mostly I want to thank the prisoners I was helping. They have made me sit up and think about the world and reconsider my own future in law. But also to reconsider my future as a person as my outlook on certain things has now changed forever. This was such an enriching experience and one that could not possibly be achieved through writing an essay.

Malcolm – HMP Oakwood – St Giles Trust ‘prisoner mentor’ (and OU graduate)

Over the last six weeks the Open University visited Oakwood in the form of a lecturer and three diligent students from their Law facility. A group of us were invited by our IAG (Information Advice and Guidance) Tutor and St Giles partner, to meet the students and pose questions of law or special interests. This was not only a novel way to have legal questions answered but an opportunity to engage with students form the community and an OU lecturer who turned out to be extremely pleasant and very knowledgeable. As a group we decided to task the students with 4 lines of enquiry these being issues that we found of interest either because they affected us personally or because we though they would be of use to the wider Oakwood community; the subjects were; the IPP sentence, Joint Enterprise, Racial profiling (for those that come into contact with the criminal justice system) and lastly, the subject of court transcripts and who has access to them. The OU group visited us on three occasions the first being an introduction and opportunity for us to set their task, the interim visit to give a progress report, indulge in our company and eat our biscuits and the final session to give a verbal report of their findings and to hand over a well presented package of information relating to the lines of enquiry and any other related pieces of information they felt would be useful to us. As an exercise in the breaking down of barriers between the incarcerated and the community it was extremely successful, the students and their lecturer were delightful and spending time with them was a great distraction form the normal routine. The students assured us that their perception of a ‘prisoner’ (the word is pejorative but serves in this instance) was much changed and they enjoyed the encounter. But as an exercise in the dissemination of new and ground breaking legal facts it was not that successful. The reason for my negative remark is in no way a reflection on the work done by the diligent students but merely a reflection on the access we now have to information; the residents here have a telephone in their room and most know someone they can phone who has internet access. Most questions can be answered in this way from the comfort of your room. The staff here at Oakwood are also able to assist in the provision of information and if it is pertinent to you rehabilitation they will download relevant data upon request. However, we are extremely grateful to the students and lecturer for giving their time and resources to provide us with the information we requested. We all took great pleasure in the exercise and hope that further engagement with the OU will be possible. We wish the students luck in their studies and hope they all reach their goals.


Throughout March and April, we attended HMP Oakwood to work with prisoner mentors and the St Giles Trust to research any legal issues the mentors suggested. This included joint enterprise, the imprisonment for public protection sentence (IPP’s), racial profiling within the criminal justice system and the destruction of court transcripts amongst other smaller topics. Prior to our first visit, I believed that all prisoners deserved to be in jail and that they should ‘do the time’ for the crimes they’ve committed. However, I tried to keep an open mind upon arrival at the prison and form an educated opinion after meeting the mentors. Which is exactly what they were, not prisoners, mentors. I’ve never met such polite humans! The second they entered the room they introduced themselves and shook your hand and offered you a cuppa and a biscuit… amazing! Instantly you forgot you were in a prison and it felt like you were in their home (which is technically true!) and this made the discussions we had over the next two visits so much easier, even when we were feeding back negative findings. Very quickly we discovered some of the mentors we spoke to were serving life sentences without even committing any crimes, which further proved my point of not judging a book by its cover. The mentors were a credit to HMP Oakwood and the St Giles Trust. Working with the St Giles Trust was brilliant. I had no idea that they existed until working on this project with them, and I’m very glad I got the opportunity to do so. Steve and Tammia were very welcoming and ensured that we didn’t just see the good side of the prison but also the not so good side when taking us on tours of the prison, which I really appreciated. During the tours, many of the prisoners that Tammia helped rehabilitate greeted her with such respect just passing by and this triggered my interest in wanting to work with St Giles Trust (specifically wanting Tammia’s job!). It must be so fulfilling to be able to see your hard work walking about the prison and this made me appreciate the work St Giles Trust do even more. Although we didn’t necessarily better the prison mentors’ legal knowledge, I’m very grateful to have had this experience and it’s something I can take with me to job interviews because I feel I gained so much knowledge and practical experience. It was so fun researching topics like joint enterprise, especially as it is currently in the news, but I was also bettering my legal knowledge on topics I was unaware of. I’ll miss our visits to HMP Oakwood, after every visit I was bursting with excitement about what I’d experienced throughout my ‘days in prison’. Big thanks to the Open University for creating this pilot project, enabling us to gain such valuable experience which will help in so many ways in our future endeavours. Also thank you to the St Giles Trust, specifically Steve and Tammia for letting us be a part of your team and taking time out of your busy days to accompany us and unlock and lock again every door we walked through! HMP Oakwood, thank you, it’s been a pleasure and the best experience I’ve had so far!


I was delighted when I found out I had been chosen to participate in the HMP Oakwood project as I thought taking part would be hugely beneficial to my studies and help enhance my experience section on my CV. Throughout the three visits I feel as though I have learnt far more about prison and prisoners than I ever could just by reading materials. I found many of my prejudices regarding offenders challenged and I now have a completely different view on the matter (obviously taking into consideration I met just a handful of people). Taking part in the actual research helped me understand some of the deeper social issues associated with offenders. My primary task was producing a report on the systematic destruction of Crown Court audio files and records. I found this extremely interesting as this is a subject I would know nothing about only by following the curriculum of my course – and I certainly wouldn’t have done the research just to satisfy my own curiosity. My other secondary tasks were to create a report and presentation on the negative impacts of long term sentencing and on discrimination in sentencing. Whilst I already knew about these issues as they are highly documented, I enjoyed the research nonetheless and feel that they have deepened my understanding. Throughout the whole experience I have learnt how to coordinate my time to juggle the demands of the work and to take more pride in work that won’t be marked as I got the opportunity to deliver my findings in person. Actually meeting the prisoners face to face has helped me with speaking to groups (if I can deliver a presentation in prison than anywhere else will be easy!). To sum up, this project has helped put a lot of my previous legal study into perspective and has certainly had an impact on my future. I plan on attempting to do more volunteer work with the St Giles Trust. I can, and I highly recommend this opportunity to be extended to other students and for those students to take it.

Public legal education at HMP Wormwood Scrubs

In this series of reflections, a number of Open University law students discuss their experiences delivering public legal education in HMP Wormwood Scrubs, which they visited along with law lecturers, Keren Lloyd Bright and Kate Richie. There were five visits in all, during which ‘Law and Society’ seminars were held within the prison’s Education Department. The topics for the seminars were chosen by the inside students (prisoners). The seminars were designed and led by the lecturers and the outside students (OU) undertook research, prepared handouts, delivered presentations and led small group work. All concerned found the experience deeply thought provoking – and in ways which they did not originally anticipate.

Frances Gould

I wanted to volunteer at Wormwood Scrubs for a number of reasons. I have worked at a charity supporting victims of violent crime for 8 years and found that my experiences of offenders was from only one very narrow view point. I wanted to change this. I also want to use my law degree for as many socially beneficial projects as possible in future and I felt this would open new opportunities for me.

Staff and volunteers met up beforehand, which was lovely and we began to bond quickly. I really don’t know what I expected as I have never been in a prison before. The first day couldn’t have been a more Dickensian setting. We walked across the main yard surrounded by the grim Victorian cell blocks, through thick falling snow to the sound of some incoherent hollering of the inmates and the clattering of keys. I will never forget it!

Once we entered the education department, it was a completely different atmosphere – a calm, friendly and well-organised space where we were enthusiastically welcomed by the prison staff.  We were placed into classrooms. Inside these rooms, student numbers grew each week. The students gave us ideas of topics to go away and research. I researched several including rehabilitation and criminal record disclosure issues. It was an eye opener and I began to understand how difficult it was for offenders to break out of the cycle of re-offending.

All of the inside students were really respectful and fully engaged in the projects. Many of the inside students were very bright but lacked confidence. I found myself telling some of the students how bright they were and encouraging them. It seemed to be the first time they had been told how capable they were from someone they wouldn’t usually meet.

I can’t recommend this project enough. It was a real education for me and the inside students and an absolute stroke of genius for the Open University. Thank you.

Anna Aitchison

My first impression of Wormwood Scrubs was, surprisingly, that it was rather beautiful. Prisons aren’t supposed to look beautiful, but snow covers many imperfections, and, so in a strange way Wormwood Scrubs did, I think have a certain air of beauty to it when I first saw it. However, the moment we stepped into the prison yard, the prison population shattered that perception with their idea of ‘flirting’.

The prisoners we worked with in the sessions, however proved to be a slightly tamer bunch; in fact, I was surprised at how much they respected their teachers.

As we were running the sessions for an established class, we were working with one teacher and her group of inside students in particular. However, that didn’t mean that we had the same people every time, as was initially assumed. A lot of the time, inside students we expected didn’t come, maybe because they’d been released, because their names weren’t on the register or because no guard was available to take them up, so we were forced to go with the flow, but I think it worked out quite well.

After the first session, we polled them for topics they wanted us to cover, and so ended up with a really mixed bag of topics. We did presentations on topics as diverse as criminal law, animal rights, separation of powers, and knife crimes among other things, all of which they really seemed to enjoy, and most of which stimulated really interesting discussions.

I found the work with the prisoners and hearing their views interesting, but I also really enjoyed working with the other OU students as well. It’s made me sure I want to do W360, as well as giving me lots of valuable experience. I would definitely recommend the experience to other OU students, particularly if you get the chance to do it before starting W360.

Phil Patterson

The opportunity to engage in a university project inside a prison was always going to appeal; those who know me best would not be surprised to hear of both my participation and enthusiasm to be involved. Expectations were nevertheless mixed beforehand; the reaction we would receive from those inside was largely unknown and the recent fatal stabbing at the site illustrative of a rise in violence across the whole prison estate.

Our first session welcome, to the backdrop of several inches of snow and the ominous sound of keys turning in locks, suggested an Education Department at loggerheads with the prison regime. Prisoners who wanted to be involved were not cleared to attend and numbers had to be enhanced by those who expected to be elsewhere. A sneak peek into the challenges which face both those running, as well as those detained in, such an establishment.

The response to the sessions by those attending however, was impressive. Prisoners were encouraged to challenge views and perceptions relating to legal topics ranging from animal rights to knife crime, and privacy through to self-defence. Even those initially hesitant about working alongside undergraduates developed confidence to get involved, in a not too dissimilar way to the OU students who worked with a prisoner for the very first time.

Looking back at the project, the effort made by those from the OU was ultimately not matched by the engagement of the authorities within the prison, despite the welcome received from within the Education Department. The balance between enforcement and development in such a unique atmosphere are undoubtedly complex, and future projects within such environments will benefit from the lessons learnt during this experience.

Am I pleased I took part; a resounding ‘Yes’ without a doubt. However, while it could not be said I benefitted in the ways I initially expected, the experience of wider issues within the criminal justice system were plain to see. Maintaining an open mind is crucial – expect the unexpected and refuse to stereotype anybody who finds themselves in detention without a knowledge of their circumstances. If your approach to justice is to throw away the key, then this project is perhaps not for you. However, if you believe everybody deserves an opportunity to move on from past wrongs and you are open enough to develop in unexpected ways, then I would not hesitate to recommend embracing opportunities of this nature.

Rebecca Buckell

I embarked on the OU LLB (hons) module wanting a promotional opportunity with my employer. I felt I lacked essential skills that other applicants had, when going for various job roles within my company. Then as the OU course progressed, I wanted to be part of the legal opportunities that the OU offered, and the confidence that you can acquire with the OU is second to none. I initially wanted to be acquainted with the OU legal course team as well as integrate with the other students and to be a part of this great pioneering project. I therefore volunteered for the Wormwood Scrubs Learning Together Project.

After submitting my reason for volunteering, against tough competition, I was successful with earning this opportunity. I cannot deny that initially I was scared, as I had never been near a courtroom, let alone a prison. But as soon as I met the prison staff, who interact with the inmates daily, I felt completely at ease. The constant work the staff do, is commendable, they are great people and definitely deserve a big thank you. The inside students and outside students, collaborated as a team on highly topical issues, such as, court procedures and knife crime. The atmosphere was welcoming and the team work was excellent. I walked away from every session learning something new, while engaging with people I never would be able to associate with. The OU lecturers were also good team leaders and team builders.

This is the experience and opportunity that the OU Open Justice team made available and as a pro bono opportunity, it was excellent. I found the whole experience enlightening and humbling all at once. This experience has made me want to embark on further legal training and be part of a wider legal community because of the fact that perhaps one day, I can be of service to persons who may really need support and I may be able to have a positive effect on my community.


A Street Law Venture in Lahore, Pakistan

Our latest guest blog is provided by Angbeen Mirza, a lawyer and research based in Lahore, Pakistan. In it, Angbeen discusses her work conducting Street Law programmes in Lahore and discusses how Street Law programmes can be part of a wider social movement for change, which have particular resonance in an emergent democracy.

Clinical Legal Education is now widely hailed as an important component of a well rounded legal education. Being a service profession, it is important for law students to be exposed to the ‘real’ world outside their classrooms before they graduate. This helps ease the transition from the world of legal theory to the world of practice. Other service professions, such as the medical profession, have relied on clinical education as part of their curriculum for decades, but the legal profession, at least in Pakistan, is only just catching on.

Street law is a form of clinic legal education (CLE). It emerged in various parts of the world as part of social movements for change. It was first used by the civil rights movements in the United States in the 70s, and then in South Africa towards the end of the apartheid. The idea was to engage lawyers and law students to help translate practical law and make it accessible to people ‘on the street’. It came with the realization that in order to obtain your rights as citizens, you first had to know what those rights were.[1] Street law eventually became an integral part of many law school curricula across the world. In Pakistan, however, the prescribed law school curriculum contains no mandatory or recommended requirement for any form of CLE.

In the absence of any formal mandate for CLE in Pakistan, the prerogative to introduce such education experiences lies entirely with the law school. The Hamdard School of Law in Karachi first introduced a street law programme with its law students by sending them to the juvenile detention facility in Karachi. Operating from 2012 till 2015, the programme helped inmates follow their own trial in a more informed fashion. Through interactive sessions, the inmates were made aware of the legal process of a criminal trial, and the rights they are guaranteed under the law. The lawyers supervising the programme found its benefits to be two-fold: it inspired the law students to embrace the social responsibility that is part of the legal profession; it also achieved higher legal literacy for the participating inmates of the juvenile facility insofar as they were able to draft and present basic documents such as complaints regarding the detention facility, and their own bail applications. They were better able to understand and navigate the criminal trial process and instruct their lawyers.[2]

The Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law (SAHSOL) in Lahore commenced its street law programme as a voluntary activity in the academic year of 2017 – 2018 in collaboration with a student society. Building on its earlier relations with local high schools enrolling lower to middle income students, a curriculum was developed targeting adolescent students. The target audience was selected premised upon the realization that a large majority of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 15.[3] The street law programme was launched with the twin goals of exposing law students to a real audience with real questions about how the law works, while empowering high school students with basic knowledge about how a constitutional democracy functions, and the role they play as informed citizens of society.

Street law, is in essence, a form of social lawyering. It seeks to create, through interaction between the student and the ‘street’ audience, a connection between the law student and her surrounding community. It helps create legal awareness in the area of law that is being discussed by the law student. And as mentioned above, it helps strengthen the rule of law by encouraging effective citizen participation in various fields.

Pakistan is a country with many problems. It is a fledgling democracy fraught with issues of accountability, army interference in the running of the state[4], terrorism[5], inter-religious discord and violence[6], and a deeply entrenched gender bias[7]. Set against this backdrop, the deeper purpose of our street law programme was to begin a movement for social change. There are many ways that societies bring about social change, and many of them are in vogue in Pakistan as well, including domestic and international lobbying for human rights friendly laws and their implementation, public interest litigation for enforcement of rights and guarantees provided in the Constitution and other laws, and social movements aimed at creating awareness and informing mindsets. Although the primary purpose of Street Law is to benefit law students, we believe that Street Law, as a movement and especially when targeting the youth of the nation, fits in well with social movements for change.

The year long programme run in Lahore by the law students of SAHSOL began with an introduction to the concept of state and its component parts: the legislature, executive and judiciary. Through participatory and interactive exercises, the high school students were able to exhibit an understanding of how our state is meant to function. This was followed by a module on criminal law, the process followed in a trial and the concept of sentencing. The final module covered fundamental rights, including the right to education, freedom of religion, right to equality and non-discrimination and some others. In future years, we hope to expand our curriculum to include a module on employment laws and family law, since we believe that these are important aspects of every person’s life.

Upon completion of the sessions, feedback from the high school students indicated a high level of satisfaction and interest in the subject matter. Many students were keen to see our law students return in the next academic year. The law students found Street Law to be an effective addition to their legal training. Some feedback received was:

“Street Law was a very interactive experience in which the students and I learnt a lot from each other. The skills I’ve developed as a tutor for Street Law have helped me improve myself not just as a future lawyer/teacher but also as a person…

Being in the role of a teacher and having to conduct a session with 27 children (who were often rowdy and mischievous) was a task in itself and ended up being a great learning experience for me. Towards the end of the academic year, this experience was more than worth every morning spent waking up early to go teach these kids and the change that it represented in our lives was very meaningful.”

(Mahum Shahzad Laun. B.A., LL.B Class of 2019)

“The response I got from the students was very positive. The classes were very fun and interactive as the students actively participated in the activities, role playing exercises and the discussions. The response from my students motivated me to go back to the school every week.

Students were particularly interested in the content of the course. I had to make sure that I was very well prepared for each session as the students asked very insightful questions.”

(Haris Irfan, B.A., LL.B Class of 2019)

The law students are keen to return to the programme in the coming academic year. This is despite the fact that despite the commitment and preparation required, they receive no formal credit for this activity. In addition to improving the completeness of our curriculum, we hope to begin to expand to networks of schools across the country and sow our small share of seeds in the movement for social change.

[1] Richard Grimes, David McQuoid Mason, Ed o Brien and Judy Zimmer ‘Street Law and Social Justice Education’ in the Global Clinical Movement (2011).

[2] Interview with Omar Maniar, Instructor at Hamdard School of Law, November 2017.

[3] According to the UNDP, 29% of Pakistan’s population is between the ages of 15 and 29, while 64% of the total population is under the age of 30: