Public legal education at HMP Altcourse: Part 3 by Sharon Taylor

Legal Eagles in HMP Altcourse prison by Sharon Taylor

“I am going to prison in Liverpool!” – these was my words during the first three Tuesdays of my summer right after the final exams. I am an Open University student studying Law who’s recently taken Public and Criminal Law. Being an OU Law student gave me the privilege of working00 on a very exciting project alongside a fantastic group where there were four more student like myself and an amazing tutor were formed as a team. The project was a radio broadcasting programme to address the prisoners legal and some general queries and concerns as obviously they were not able to access this information. Our team? we were the Legal Eagles!

First things first – I am sure I am not the only one who when they hear the word prison, the initial reaction would be “criminals” or maybe some would even say “hell”. Well dare I say, we are all fools and ignorant! Walking into HMP Altcourse was like going back to my university days. The buildings, the footie ground, the canteen, the healthcare clinic, the tutorial rooms where they teach basic English to Level 3 and IT courses and “mini zoo” as I call it– all very well laid out and managed properly! Rigid checks were carried out by the friendly staff at the reception where we were given visitor’s IDs and then went through to meet our hosts Pete and David.

Welcome sign to HMP Altcourse managed by G4S

The initial visit was quiet nerve racking I must admit… walking into an alien place not knowing what to expect gave me cold feet. But once we met the staff and the small group of prisoners who were going to assist us with our project, we immediately felt at ease. They made us feel very welcome and their hospitality was extraordinary, which made our subsequent visits all very easy. We were spoilt! Not only with the amount of information but also with the food that they fed us!

The project was a radio program where we were given tasks to interview prisoners regarding legal related issues they have, and they wish to address. We had a couple of meetings with Pete, David and the very polite inmates and all the questions boiled down to five topics. We picked one topic each and carried out reliable research to deliver dependable information. We researched Family Law about father and child Shared Arrangements; Proceeds of Crime Act; Sex Offenders Register; Home Detention Curfew and the arguably most boring topic – Data Protection Act 2018.

Oh we also did a Desert Island List! Yes that’s right, we DID!

This opportunity provided by OU has given me, I must say, hand on heart, has changed my view of prison completely. Going in to speak to real people who have committed mistakes in their lives is not only a good experience but also an eye opener for me that I surely will take with me as I venture on not only with my legal career in the future but with me as a person.

Public legal education at HMP Altcourse: Part 2 by Kelly Thomas and Henry Lambert

Legal Eagle Radio Show Blog – By Kelly Thomas

As an Open University student studying LLB Law, I was given the opportunity to visit HMP Altcourse which is a cat B prison hosting around 1200 men, along with 4 other students and a tutor that I had never met. When I first arrived at Altcourse on that roasting hot June day, I didn’t anticipate, the effect that this journey that I was about to embark upon would have upon my life as both a law student and a person.  My fellow students, The Open University tutor, the inmates who we worked with and the staff at the prison, made this experience one that I will never forget, and the experience is a must for any law student.

The reason for our visit was to assist prisoners and answer any general legal questions that they might have. The 2 prisoners that we met who ran the radio show received these questions from the prison population, we then researched the questions and answered the questions on the in-house prison radio station.  The questions we received where questions based on Family Law, Home detention curfew, The Sex offenders Register, The Proceeds of Crime Act and current Data Protection Law.

HMP Altcourse struck me as a modern prison, it was the kind of prison that you see on the TV in American films and dramas. With large exercise yards, wide open spaces between buildings and lots of different programs available to develop the prisoners whilst inside.  The maximum amount for time that these lads stay at this prison is 4 years, with lifers moving around different prisons around the country whilst serving their sentences.  They can undertake courses in plastering, painting and decorating and joinery, they also undertake family courses, learning how to produce healthy food and learn parenting skills whilst in Prison.

Something that struck me lost for words, apart from the smell of the prison which sent me back to my school days! or the noise of the clunking of the keys in the locks and the clanging of the metal doors as you walk through them was the Art department. The sheer talent of these lads was amazing, the talent we saw was above and beyond anything that I have seen in any art gallery.

So, we met the radio broadcasting team, headed up by Dave who was a prison guard. The two prisoners we met were friendly and complete professionals in their field of radio presenting.  We received the questions following visit one.  On visit two we familiarized ourselves with the rules of the broadcasting room and planned the final visit when we would present our prepared answers to the prison population.  Teamwork assisted us in our presentations, hard work, professionalism and attention to detail aided in our successful presentation at the final visit.

I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this project. The skills I have learnt in this short period of time could not be taught in a classroom or instructed on an online tutorial.  The direct interaction with Prisoners at a vulnerable stage in their lives, working together with fellow students to achieve a common goal and being led by a tutor in a managerial role is experience that is a must for any law student.  This project has provided me with a first-hand insight into my achievable aim of becoming a solicitor.

Henry Lambert – HMP Altcourse visit

I had visited Liverpool a number of times; the usual sites for someone traveling through for work or to visit a friend. I had been to the cathedrals, The Philharmonic, and across the Mersey for a football match. This time was different. This time I was going to prison. With Liverpool Lime Street under construction my journey consisted of a train from London to Liverpool Parkways, then unto Liverpool Central, with another train out to the difficult to pronounce Fazakerley Station, and, finally, a half hour walk past the hospital and along a quiet industrial estate to reach the entrance of HMP Altcourse.

It was June, dry, and right at the height of a heatwave. I stood outside waiting to enter the prison with my new colleagues from the OU and our tutor. I had steeled myself for a different experience. One where hardened take-no-nonsense prison guards would be guiding a naive group of students through a rather grim environment. This expectation was dismissed within the first few minutes of our tour through the prison.

Having dispensed with contraband items (cigarettes, lighters, and cellphones) we were ushered through a set of double doors and then a series of locked gates. The various wings of Altcourse are named after features of the immediately adjoining racing grounds of Aintree. The wings are grouped around two spacious grass pitches and running tracks. The tour around the facilities, gave us a sense of the day-to-day life of the prison population as they endeavour to reintegrate with the outside community. Art, carpentry, IT skills, plastering, welding, beekeeping, and keeping birds of prey, were all on the agenda. The level of engagement by staff and inmates was impressive.

Our task was to help provide content for the prison radio service by researching answers to legal questions put to us by the inmates. Our hosts on the prison staff first contacted the mentors – the more senior prisoners on the wings. These mentors then queried the general prison population and a couple of weeks later a long list of intriguing questions were returned to us. The list was pruned and rationalized, and it came time to divide the topics and hit the books. The questions ranged from the workings of home detention curfew, and sexual offences, to the proceeds of crime act, family law, and data protection. Each of us prepared our topic, with the team meeting online to run through our talks and tighten them up before recording the final show.

This experience at Altcourse, working with both the staff and inmates who were producing a very high standard of radio programming and the team from the OU, has been entirely unique in my academic and professional life. It was fascinating to collaborate with such a diversity of personal and professional backgrounds. It was gratifying to be part of a project where it genuinely felt as if everyone participating came away with something valuable: the inmates running the radio program and the prison staff working on production, the general prison population that might benefit from the information presented, and the OU students being given this opportunity.

I know I won’t soon be forgetting my colleagues and that walk from Fazakerley (which I still can’t pronounce) to HMP Altcourse. It was my first experience seeing how the law operates in practice: with all sorts of people coming together to ask questions, try to find answers, and communicate them effectively.


Public legal education at HMP Altcourse: Part 1 by Joseph Beet and Paula Virlan

In this series of reflections, a number of Open University law students discuss their experiences delivering a legally focused radio programme which will be broadcast at HMP Altcourse. Five students visited the prison in June 2018 along with law lecturer Tamsin Morris.

Joseph Beet

I was one of the students from the Open University who was given the chance to deliver a legally focused radio programme to be broadcast at HMP Altcourse. Over three visits to the prison my colleagues and I discovered just what questions prisoners had regarding our legal system and how best to deliver that information to them.

During our visits to HMP Altcourse we spoke with prisoners who gave us an idea of what kind of questions may be asked of us. Together we narrowed down fields of law where we would be able to help, and to which they canvassed the larger prison population for questions. We were also showed around the prison and given a unique insight as to what life is like, and the efforts prisoners go to in order to improve themselves through rehabilitation and work experiences. We really didn’t expect bee keeping and falconry to be a part of prison life! However, it was remarkable the effect participating in these activities, and running the radio station itself, had on people. The pride they took in their work was self evident, and it showed in their results (the bee honey tasted great!).

Once we canvassed enough questions however, it was down to business for us. We divided the questions we had been asked that we were able to cover into the following broad categories; Family Law, Sexual Offences, Home Detention Curfew, GDPR and Proceed of Crime. We then applied the knowledge and skills obtained throughout our studies with the Open University in order to research the correct legal positions and answer the questions the prisoners had. Unlike legal research for university assignments, or written reports however, this time there was a twist. The information and answers we had researched and found would have to be delivered to the prison population via radio show! Not only did we have to get the information, but our presentation skills would be put to the test as we would interviewed on air with the show broadcast for everyone to hear. We had to ensure our presentations flowed naturally in conversation, and were interesting and engaging. Not an easy task for complex law, or when nervous!

Ultimately on the day of the recording, all nervousness washed away. The hospitality of our hosts, their professionalism, and friendly approach, immediately put us at ease, and we were able to deliver our interviews and cover the questions the prisoners had about law. Afterwards we were able to reflect on the skills the project had instilled in use. Not only were our research skills put to the test, were able to apply them in a practical environment and greatly enhance or presentation and media skills. We all walked away with a greater understanding, and respect, for our prison system and those who work in it, and go through it.

I definitely would like to thank the staff and prisoners at HMP Altcourse, as well as the OU, for this opportunity and everything it has taught me.

Altcourse and the birth of the OU Legal Eagles Team

by Paula Virlan

I went to prison at the end of June beginning of July 2018, in Liverpool. I travelled there by plane, car, coach and taxi. I did not commit a crime. I was taking part in a project developed by the Open University.

I will describe the first visit as a reconnaissance mission, but not in a military sense – quite the opposite. I had the pleasure to meet the team I was going to work with (Kelly, Sharon, Joseph, Henry, and our supervisor Tamsin), two prison officers (Peter and David) and two of the most well-behaved and polite inmates. We discussed the types of skills and jobs available to prisoners. They vary from manual labour such as carpentry, to English, mathematics, arts, music and many others – including the possibility of taking certain university courses with the OU. I was impressed by the variety of skills and opportunities offered by Altcourse and staff’s commitment to help and encourage prisoners to follow a different path in life.

Our aim and purpose there – to answer prisoners’ questions about the law. We must put our best skills at work to provide comprehensive, useful and interesting answers. I was surprised to find out our answers will be recorded and played on the prison’s own radio station. David proposed we record a Desert Island Disc show, during our second visit, I gladly accepted.

Two weeks later I arrive earlier, some of us took on Peter’s offer – to see some of the rehabilitation programs in action. The classes are due to end soon but just before they do Paul takes me in the English class. I introduce myself and say that I’m originally from Bucharest, Romania. The teacher (whose name I’ve shamefully forgot) has visited Romania on a few occasions and loved it. I don’t hear that very often so I’m glad to listen. Next, I turn my attention to the prisoners. I want to find out their questions about the law, but they are awkwardly (and surprisingly) shy, so they don’t really speak out. I’m told they’ll write them down and give us all a list by the end of the day.

We take a break, Peter and David are great hosts throughout our visits and their hospitality is remarkable.

It’s time to record our Desert Island Discs programme. I feel we’re all getting a bit nervous, but it is a great experience and by the end of it we’re more relaxed. We decide our law programme will be called ‘The Legal Eagles’. Before we leave we are given the list of law related questions.

17TH of July is our last visit. We’re all prepared, and we practiced our work online with Tamsin. We are covering subjects such as Home Detention Curfew, Data Protection Act, Family Law, Proceeds of Crime and Sexual Offences. Whilst listening to everyone’s answers I realise that the skills we’ve all gained through our legal studies are settling well within each and everyone of us. I’m smiling. I think we’ve all come a long way and I’m proud of all of us.

On my way home I get a weird feeling. I truly enjoyed this experience, but it has come to an end. I would like to thank the OU for this opportunity, members of staff from HMP Altcourse, to my colleagues, and Tamsin.

The Prosecutors – Consulting on Series 2 and the Criminal Law Principle of Conspiracy

In this post, Dr Simon Lavis reflects on his experience working on Series 2 of The Prosecutors and takes a closer look at conspiracy in the criminal law.

Series 2 of The Prosecutors aired on BBC2 last Thursday 2nd August and continues this coming Thursday. The programme follows the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as it takes complex criminal cases from charge through to trial. It is a BBC/Open University co-production and I was engaged on Series 2 as the OU’s academic consultant for the programme. I became involved in June 2017, joining other OU colleagues already involved with the programme, and by that point the production company had already been working on Series 2 for months so altogether it was nearly two years from the start of the project to broadcasting.

My role on this co-production has involved three main tasks. As the initial decisions about which cases to follow had already been made, the first task is reviewing and providing feedback on the edits of the programmes. The second task is to consider how we might use some of the video from the series to enhance the learning on the OU modules. The third task is preparing some of the materials that go on the OpenLearn website, to accompany the series. These allow interested viewers to find out more about the relevant areas of law and criminal justice and complete some interactive activities. For this series, I prepared a short article about new technologies and the criminal law, and an interactive quiz asking viewers to follow a scenario and decide whether they would prosecute a modern slavery case based on the evidence available.

This is my first academic consultant role for television and it has been very enjoyable meeting the production team, seeing how things work in production, and thinking about how to make the accompanying materials engaging and informative. The series itself gives a really good sense of how the CPS goes about its business, especially in complex cases that take months if not years to prosecute, and involve many perpetrators operating across the country. I do not think many people know a lot about how the CPS actually works and the sorts of issues and decisions it has to tackle, so hopefully The Prosecutors can help to improve our understanding of the service.

Series 2 also covers some interesting areas of criminal law in England and Wales. The one I want to focus on briefly here is the little understood criminal law principle of conspiracy. Conspiracy is an example of an inchoate offence, which means an incomplete offence: steps have been taken towards an act that is a crime, but the criminal act has not been completed. The criminal law is generally interested in people who have committed criminal acts with a guilty state of mind, but it is also sometimes interested in people planning to commit criminal acts if enough steps have been taken – conspiracy is an example of this.

A conspiracy is basically an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime, but just conspiring to do anything is (obviously) not an offence; you have to conspire to do something criminal. It is mainly criminalised by section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which requires the following:

  • a person agrees with any other person(s)
  • to pursue a course of conduct, which
  • if the agreement is carried out as intended will either:
    • involve a criminal offence being committed; or
    • would involve an offence being committed if not for facts existing that happen to make the commission of the offence impossible.

This is a case of where it does not take much to be drawn into committing a criminal offence; just by agreeing something with someone else, even if you do not actually go on to do anything. Being part of a conspiracy can also mean that you will be punished more harshly than you would otherwise be for actually carrying out the same offence on your own. You can see examples of this in action in The Prosecutors.