My day Learning Together

By | 2019-03-27T15:47:02+00:00 April 5th, 2018|0 Comments

Dr Irene Wieczorek is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Cambridge. She was a guest small group facilitator for one of the sessions of the Butler Law Course at HMP Warren Hill and, in this short post, shares some of her experiences of that day:

‘I am very sorry to have to meet you under these circumstances’, starts John, playing the role a lawyer in a police station. John sits confidently on one of the chairs  in the middle of the classroom, legs slightly spread and hands on his knees. Brian, who is sitting in the audience next to me, bursts into laughter: ‘Oh my god that is 100% accurate! All my lawyers would always begin by telling me that!’

We are all taking part in a role play exercise, and our group is the last in line. For the time being, we listen and give feedback to other students about their performances and legal knowledge.

‘But don’t worry we have a few ideas about how you might challenge the validity of this evidence and secure your release’, continues John, in a calm and reassuring voice. ‘My colleague, Julie, will explain them to you’. Julie starts speaking very fast. She is well-prepared and eager to provide her client with all of the various legal options at his disposal: ‘So, there are two legal provisions, as you can see Section 7(b)(iii) which speaks of compulsion to give a confession, and 7(b)(ii) confession obtained under undue influence. Now we believe that in your circumstances the second provision is more likely to be applicable…’ ‘No no no…’, Matt interrupts her, ‘I do not understand a word of what you are saying! What sections, what paragraphs are you talking about? I just need you to get me out of here! I did nothing wrong! I want to go home!’ Matt then puts his face in his hands and pretends to start crying, much to the amusement of the rest of the students.

It is hard to know who is enjoying learning about the law through the role play more – John, a prison resident playing the role of a lawyer, or Matt, a member of staff, taking the role of a young teenager who is being held in a police station on charges of vandalism. We are at HMP Warren Hill, a Category C ‘progression’ prison, which is one and a half hours away from Cambridge, on the coast, taking part in the Learning Together programme, led and designed by a group of Cambridge based researchers. I had seen the programme advertised at the University. With only two months left as a visiting scholar I knew I would only be able to attend one of the sessions but Jack, the course convener, said I could come along anyway and act as a small group ‘facilitator’.

We arrived to Warren Hill around lunchtime after a particularly pleasant drive through East Anglian countryside. Once inside, the ‘prison-feeling’ did not last long. The Visits Hall, where most sessions of the course are held, felt open and welcoming with colourful armchairs and paintings that had been created by some of the residents, including one with a rainbow accompanied by a dove with an olive branch.

The university students were quick to take their places within the sea of colourful armchairs. They chatter enthusiastically. I can tell they are excited about what is to come. The prison-based students join us few minutes later. The two groups shake hands and exchange smiles. I am impressed by the spontaneity and genuineness of the interactions on both sides. I do not know why I had anticipated more awkwardness. Socialising doesn’t last long though. Amy, Ruth and Jack, who are leading the course, soon call us to duty, and the lecture starts.

When I told people I was going to take part in a course in prison one of the first questions was ‘what are they in for?’ ‘That’s the wrong attitude’ I would tell myself, internally rehearsing my little criminology lecture ‘all evidence based theories about rehabilitation teach us that offender management programmes must be forward looking, they must focus on the potential of the offender, and what useful contribution to the community, he or she can do in the future, and not on what harm he or she has done in the past’’. But honestly, I was curious myself. Yet, these thoughts did not cross my mind once during the session. Admittedly, there was hardly time to think about anything else than the exercises Amy, Ruth and Jack were giving us. The legal questions were tricky, and we had little time to answer them. When was the law on self-defence changed in England and why? What are the international sources of law which have an impact on English criminal justice? What do sexual harassment and coercion in a police station have in common? ‘They are both rooted in an imbalance of power’, answers Simon who is in the group I am meant to facilitate. ‘It is all related to power structures, in both cases the victim of sexual harassment and the suspect in a police station are confronted with an authority they cannot challenge…’. Another student argues that to her ‘it is really just about money. If you have money you can get a good lawyer and sue your boss or the police officer in both cases.’ An animated discussion about money and power in today’s society follows.

Before I knew it, our three hours together were up. We had been so absorbed by what we were learning that no-one seemed to have noticed the time. We had all forgotten, for a moment, where we had come from, and where we now had to return to. I realise that our ways now have to part. The Warren Hill students need to go back to their wings, while we can go home and decide what to do with our evenings. I feel like I want to say goodbye to everybody, wish them luck with the course and with life thereafter but there is no time for extended goodbyes.

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