Open University law students from around the UK have collaborated with prison learners to record a series of radio programmes for broadcast on prison radio, as part of a pioneering project by the University’s Open Justice Centre.
The success of the pilot, which resulted in a radio programme called Castaway, means it is expected to be rolled out to other prisons.
This is the second time this innovative project has been implemented with NOVUS – an organisation which strives to educate offenders – at HMP Altcourse, a Category B men’s private prison in Merseyside.
Regular access to meet prisoners
From February to the end of March 2019, the six Law students on the W360 Justice in Action module were granted regular access to the prison, where they met with prisoners to explore the legal issues affecting them.
Together the final-year students and prisoners identified topics for the Law students to research – ranging from human rights and release on licence to family, employment and housing law. The law students later returned to HMP Altcourse to record the radio shows with the prisoners, tackling the selected legal topics. The programme – called ‘Castaway’ – is being broadcast to prisoners on Radio Altcourse.
The project is a clear demonstration of how The Open University – which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year – has reimagined its ongoing mission to be open to all and promote educational opportunity and social justice. It is the brainchild of the OU’s Open Justice Centre, which provides free legal advice and guidance to people and groups who may struggle to access appropriate legal support through other means.
Hugh McFaul, Lecturer in Law and Chair of W360 Justice in Action, said: “This is an excellent example of how The Open University is open to people, places, methods and ideas. Through this project, we have been able to bring together two different groups people and give them experience of collaborating and working together, with great educational benefits to both groups. Both groups of people – the students and prisoners – are working on becoming positive contributors to local communities and wider society.”
The OU is 50 years old and has been working in prisons since the very beginning. This Open Justice project is a reimagining of the OU’s core ideals.
Sarah Couling was one of the students who has just completed the HMP Altcourse project. She said: “My perception of prison life has drastically changed. A custodial sentence with rehabilitation at the forefront is a wonderful thing. Our purpose of entering the prison was to collect legal questions from the prisoners and present our answers on their radio station.
“I entered that prison thinking that I would be the one helping them, rather than them helping me. I was wrong. I gained so much from the experience and I am so truly grateful to have met these fine young men.”
“Change people’s attitudes”
She added: “I fully support this type of prison programme and encourage anyone with the opportunity to engage with prisoners to jump in. Programmes like this are breaking down social barriers and creating positive social change. They help to change people’s attitudes towards different people, shatter incorrect preconceived ideas about prisons, and benefit both students and prisoners alike.”
NOVUS’ Information, Advice and Guidance Worker Pete Tinsley and part-time NOVUS Tutor and Prison Custody Officer Dave McAlley from Novus said: “We call this project ‘Legal Eagles’. Last year’s pilot was so successful that we decided to continue. It can be hard for prisoners to find answers to specific legal questions – we have law books in the library but it can be daunting for many of the prisoners. The Legal Eagles are able to clear up their queries. It’s a positive experience for the students as well – coming into the prison challenged their perceptions of what prisoners are like.”
This radio prison project – which first ran in 2018, with a group of five students – is just one many student-led prison projects based around legal research and guidance. To date, the Open Justice Centre has run projects with over 70 students, serving prisoners in nine prisons across England and Wales.
Other projects run through a partnership with the St Giles Trust – a charity which helps severely disadvantaged people to find support, and runs award-winning prison and ex-offender projects. The inmates involved in these collaborations are all Peer Advisors: prisoners trained by the St Giles Trust to guide and advise fellow inmates, and assist education, resettlement and prison staff, for the benefit of the whole prison.
Maria McNicholl from the St Giles Trust, said: “The Open Justice students have given our Peer Advisors in the prisons a real opportunity to develop, learn and become more professional. But, more than anything, they have provided a forum where students and prisoners can meet as equals, learn from each other and discuss a whole range of relevant issues. The sessions I have observed have been the liveliest and most stimulating I have ever witnessed inside a prison!”