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.

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