Report on Open Justice PLE Prison Projects 2018

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November 2018 – The Open University, United Kingdom

The Justice in Action module at the Open University forms part of the Law degree and is available to OU students as one of the final modules of their degree. It is co-ordinated by the Open Justice Centre at The Open University Law School which provides free legal advice and guidance to people and groups who may struggle to access appropriate legal support through other means.

There are a number of prison based projects offered as one strand of public legal education, providing pro bono opportunities for law degree students. These started with pilot projects in 2017 and are now developing further and building on feedback from participants.

 

Autumn 2017: pilot projects in HMP Send and St Giles Camberwell

The pilot projects were set up with the direction, assistance and administrative support of St Giles Trust, who already offer Through the Gate support and mentoring to people leaving prison.

In the first visit, the peer advisors/prisoners (HMP Send) and peer advisors/ex-prisoners (St Giles Trust Camberwell) were asked about the legal issues they would like researched to support their work. In the second, the law students presented their initial findings. In the third visit, the students presented their final findings and provided handouts and folders of information. Topics covered included :

  • Access to education and IT facilities in prison
  • ID on release from prison
  • Homelessness Reduction Act 2017
  • Council housing allocation policies or schemes and council duties
  • Illegal eviction from rented property
  • Domestic abuse related homelessness

For the Law School, there was much learning around briefing students before they enter a prison or advice environment; setting student expectations about their contribution; appropriate conduct in the prison and advice environment; the particular importance of induction and ice-breakers; and the intensity of the experience for staff and students alike.

 

Spring and summer 2018: Open Justice prison projects

  1. St Giles Trust Model: HMP Oakwood and HMP Sudbury

The students were asked to research diverse issues such as joint enterprise, destruction of court transcripts, sexual harm prevention orders and family visiting rights.

  1. ‘Learning together’ model: HMP Wormwood Scrubs

This model was based on the format developed by sociology academics at the University of Cambridge in partnership with HMP Grendon. OU staff and students delivered ‘Law and Society’ seminars to the prisoners. After the first session, the subjects for the seminars were chosen by the prisoners themselves and included knife crime, employment law issues after prison, the criminal courts and trial procedure via a mock trial, sports law and animal rights.

  1. Prison radio model: HMP Altcourse

This project was led by an OU law tutor. Students worked with the prison radio production team to produce and broadcast a law themed programme on prison radio.

 

Publicity and dissemination

News and information about the Open Justice prison projects have been disseminated more widely online:

Open Justice Week: http://law-school.open.ac.uk/open-justice/open-justice-week

Open Justice blog: http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/openjustice/

These links have contributions from the law students who participated in the HMP Oakwood and HMP Wormwood Scrubs projects.

Hugh McFaul and Keren Lloyd Bright have presented findings to date about the projects at a Law School research seminar, conferences and plan to author journal articles.

 

Student feedback

The students have been deeply appreciative of the opportunity they have been given to research and present legal topics in a prison environment. Without exception, the students found the experience of the prison projects intense and thought provoking. The stereotypes they held of prisoners were thoroughly challenged and they have reflected deeply about the purpose of prison and the critical importance of prison education and rehabilitation. Many have expressed a wish to volunteer in prisons in future and have changed their thinking on the future direction of their legal careers.

 

Plans for spring 2019

The OU plan to work closely with St Giles Trust; build on those prison projects established in 2017 and 2018; set up further projects in England; and extend the reach of the prison projects to include Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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