(photo – Roseline ( pictured first on the right), fellow students and tutor Kate Ritchie ( far left) in the HMP High Down grounds, March 2020)
During one of my modules last year, a student highlighted the benefits of participating in one of the prison projects. I remember quite vividly the smile on the student’s face as she recounted how much she looked forward to each prison visit and how rewarding the experience was, not just for the prisoners but also for the students. I was intrigued and wanted to know more.
Conducting a little bit of research, I discovered that the prison projects are one of the pro bono options available in the module W360: Justice in Action and that they require students to take part in pro bono work by attending a prison and providing free legal information and guidance to prisoners.
So, when the time came for me to choose my next module, I made the decision to choose the prison project option as I was hoping that I could also make a difference in my own small way, by ensuring that maybe, at least, one prisoner was privy to the legal information they needed, which would hopefully improve their chances of having access to justice.
Topics of interest to prisoners
The legal information that you may be required to provide to the prisoners varies from the Sentencing Guidelines, especially issues affecting custodial sentences such as licence conditions, early release and Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs), to joint enterprise cases, particularly in light of the Jogee case, to extradition law, particularly on issues affecting foreign nationals in prison facing deportation and criminal defences such as insanity, automatism and diminished responsibility. Topics are based wholly on what interests and matters to the prisoners. You will find that providing prisoners with any legal information is invaluable, especially to those prisoners who have been incarcerated for a number of years and unaware of changes to the law and for those prisoners who for a number of reasons are incapable of accessing the legal help they require, themselves.
It is true that working with other students, especially students whom you haven’t met in person, can sometimes be challenging, but you quickly learn from each other and work towards a common goal to ensuring that you provide detailed legal information for the prisoners. You have to be able to collaborate with each other, share ideas and bear in mind that other students may work at a different pace than you or may have work or family commitments which may hinder their ability to adhere to strict deadlines. As a team member, it is also important that you understand that you may be required to step in to fill a gap, should there be a need, to ensure that the task is completed and the presentation still goes according to plan. Personally, I relished the challenge of working as part of a team as it pushed me to improve my work further before the next prison visit. I also developed a competitive streak without realizing it!
With regards to research, I must admit that initially I really struggled with it as I easily got frustrated when sometimes, I couldn’t find the information I was looking for through a legal database. And like a lot of other students out there who sometimes find themselves in similar situation, Google, becomes a temporary, but quick welcome alternative. However, as I needed to provide a list of my sources, which can be legally verified, I had no choice but to persist using legal databases for my research. This benefited me immensely, because as I continued to use this method of research, I developed key legal research skills without even realizing I was doing so. And as I progressed into the project, I grew more and more confident with conducting in-depth legal research and relished compiling detailed legal information on different topics for the prisoners.
Prison visits and the presentations
The prison visit itself can be nerve-racking. I was nervous about arriving at the prison late, thereby missing the visit entirely. I was worried about forgetting my ID which would have been disastrous seeing as entrance to the prison was completely prohibited without it and then I was also incredibly nervous about meeting the prisoners and presenting the information to them. I suppose I was mostly worried about embarrassing myself by forgetting key aspects of my research or worse, not being able to answer the prisoners’ questions. However, as it turned out, I had nothing to be nervous about. The prisoners were incredibly intelligent, intuitive, engaging and also very enthusiastic, which made the visits and the presentations incredibly successful.
I therefore began to look forward to each visit, not only to present the prisoners with the legal information they wanted, but to learn from them. I found their positive attitude infectious and I was also pleasantly surprised at their legal knowledge and enthusiasm to acquire even more legal knowledge. They exhibited the latter by widening the scope of topics presented for research at the end of each session, which challenged me further.
Benefits of the prison projects
Prior to studying W360: Justice in action, I was unaware that there were organizations, such as Open Justice and St Giles, who are architects of the prison projects, and made up of tutors, lawyers, and a whole team of volunteers who go out of their way to ensure social justice by providing legal help and guidance pro bono to the most vulnerable people in our society. I am incredibly appreciative to have been given the opportunity to study this module as it has helped me to develop personally and professionally. I must admit that I was not expecting the prison project to benefit me in the way that it did. I feel privileged to have met the prisoners we worked with. I was also incredibly happy to discover at the final session that one of the prisoners who had been incarcerated for quite some time, was finally able to access the professional legal help they required and was due to be released a few days later.
The prison projects have the ability to help your legal development in ways that you cannot imagine and at the same time, it gives you the opportunity to make a difference in prisoners’ lives, so if you have a desire for both of these and more, the prison projects and the module W360: Justice in Action may be for you.