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.