The Open University and prison-based PLE
(Author: Hugh McFaul, Open Justice) Reminiscent of the tag line for a well-known Dutch beer, The Open University prides itself on teaching students that other higher education institutions may struggle to reach. A clear example is The OU’s longstanding partnership with the UK prisons; studying for an OU degree is often the only realistic path to a degree for serving prisoners. Students who have completed degrees in prison testify to the positive impact this can have on their life inside, as well as post release, and the OU graduation ceremonies held within prisons are particularly inspirational.
So, when the OU Law School began to develop its pro bono project, Open Justice, we tried to build on this long-standing partnership by exploring how law students could contribute to prison based legal education. This has resulted in a variety of public legal education pilot projects with the St. Giles Trust, HMP Wandsworth and HMP Wormwoood Scrubs which are scheduled to run over the coming academic year.
St. Giles Trust provides a range of support services for serving prisoners, those who have been released back into the community as well as with groups at risk offending, such
as young people who may fall under the influence of gang culture. A key aspect of their work is to train peer advisors to support the rehabilitation process and to help ex-offenders adjust to life on the outside. Small groups of OU Law students will work with peer advisors to identify areas of legal need within their client community and develop suitable public legal education projects to help address that need. The legal topics are not predetermined so as to ensure that outputs will have relevance and currency, likewise the precise form of the public legal education intervention is subject to agreement, but could include workshops on welfare rights or jargon-free advice guides on release on temporary licence or employment law. Students will be working with St Giles peer advisors in Camberwell and HMP Send.
The Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth pilots both take place next spring and OU students will work on two distinct projects. In HMP Wandsworth a small group of students will collaborate with the production team behind Radio Wanno: HMP Wandsworth’s in-house radio station. The aim will be to work collaboratively with prison learners to develop a public legal education radio programme that will address legal issues of relevance to inmates.
The Wormwood Scrubs project is the most ambitious of the three and takes its inspiration from the Learning Together initiative pioneered at the University of Cambridge. This will see
OU students contribute to the research, design and delivery of a law seminar series incorporating current academic debates on topical legal issues. The aim of the project is to provide prison learners with an engaging and academically rigorous programme of study that will develop confidence and capacity to pursue further academic study.