In November 2018 Learning Together travelled to Buenos Aires to visit other prison university partnerships to explore new and exciting ways of working between these institutions, and share experiences and best practice. As part of this trip, directors Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow visited the University of Buenos Aires Centre within Devoto Prison . During the visit, they met people serving prison sentences who were running a legal centre within the prison where students from the university were working alongside students within the prison. Following the trip, we were keen to share the work of those working in the centre, so we asked them to tell us more about the project. This is what they wrote…
The University Legal Centre in Devoto prison is a space created by the residents, for the residents. Its fundamental purpose is as a legal support service for people in prison. The legal service has existed since the UBA Centre, Centre Universidad Devoto (CUD), was established in 1986. Since 2010 the legal service has been named after Horacio Rojo, who was killed by Argentina’s Federal Police in an alleged confrontation which resulted in him being shot seven times in the back. The centre was named in honour of his role in the CUD and his commitment to fighting for those deprived of their rights and liberties.
The centre is entirely responsive to the needs of the community, meaning that it can look very different on any given day. Residents attend with their queries and those working there investigate, and respond to, their concerns. The issues can be as simple as helping them to understand the progress of a complaint or case, accessing the legal services available to them, or helping them to communicate with lawyers.
The centre’s practice is constantly developing through new and diverse legal problems brought up by the residents. The goal is always to give the most complete advice, equipping residents with all the tools they need to find solutions to their queries. In many cases, residents do not have clear information about their legal situation. Advisors help them to work through what they can remember, sometimes reconstructing cases and events and gathering the information necessary for their cases to progress.
In the federal system of Argentina and the city of Buenos Aires, the legal system has a mixed structure, where cases combine oral debate and advocacy, with procedural, investigative and written application stages. The centre does not provide advocates for the oral stages, but provides assistance for all other elements of the criminal process. We support them with parole processes, appeals, sentencing matters , habeas corpus applications, evidence requests, dismissals and more.
The service exists as an independent entity and is not funded by the Law school. It was created in order for residents to help one another, so that they might be less vulnerable to the complex nature of the criminal legal process. However, each week the service is delivered by student volunteers from the law school, working alongside ten ‘inmate’ volunteers.
The experience allows law students to gain first-hand experience of legal practice. They are able to gain knowledge of a range of tribunals and jurisdictions within the legal system. Students may even be working on complex appeal cases that progress all the way to the Supreme Court. For those working at the service this is extremely rewarding, and offers a diversity of experience difficult to achieve early in a legal career.
The centre is now able to visit different wings in the prison to provide advice. This means some matters can be resolved quickly without resorting to written applications
In the CUD legal centre, legal process is studied alongside developing skills of client-care and interviewing, giving a real-world grounding to legal theory. For example, in a habeas corpus case a student will need to identify which information is essential to demonstrate injury, they will need to prepare for depositions, follow the trial, understand what evidence will be needed for an appeal and be attentive to all deadlines and time restrictions.
The key aim of the Legal Counselling Service is to capacitate those with real-life experience of the law to offer support to others in a similar situation, and to give residents the opportunity to do something meaningful and gain knowledge during their time studying at the Centre Universidad Devoto.
Drawing of Ruth and Amy presenting at The University Legal Centre by a Devoto prison resident