On Thursday 26 April, HMP Warren Hill hosted the end of course conference for The Butler Law Course, a Learning Together partnership between Warren Hill and the University of Cambridge, which has been running since November 2017.
Throughout the course, a group of 15 students have learnt about the legal system, developed their legal research skills, heard from inspiring guest speakers from the legal profession and researched and produced their own legal advice materials on topics about which there is currently little clear, accessible and predictable information.
The students produced a wide range of legal materials including: an advice guide for category A prisoners; a guide to licence conditions for men and women serving indeterminate sentences; three guides for litigants in person; and a guide for men serving sentences at Her Majesty’s Pleasure about the process of mid-tariff reviews. The quality of this work took centre stage on the day with large display boards featuring the students’ work and posters depicting their motivations and research processes. Guests were quick to begin exploring the legal materials, alongside a brief introduction to the prison’s Raptor (birds of prey) and art projects and a warm welcome by the Warren Hill barista team, who are working towards qualifications in hospitality and catering.
Our conference began with introductions and welcomes from the prison’s Govenor, Sonia Walsh, and the Directors of Learning Together, Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong. Sonia spoke about the power of learning and transformation within both a prison and university context, and how Learning Together had empowered all of the students in novel and exciting ways that will equip them all to lead positive futures. Amy and Ruth shared some of the history of Learning Together, and their motivations for founding the initiative, which is grounded in Paolo Freire’s work and vision of ‘education as the practice of freedom’.
Next, Shaun, a student on the course, performed two original poems about his experiences of justice, ‘Letter to My Mother’ and ‘State of Affairs’. His performance was met with rapturous applause. I took the stage next to talk about my experiences as Course Convener. My speech focused on my own route into law, the structure of the course, how we designed it, inspired by Tom Bingham’s ‘Rule of Law’ book to focus on strengthening access to justice, and most importantly, the students’ achievements throughout the last few months. I highlighted three qualities that I felt our students have embodied in their learning journeys together. These were:
- a belief in the fundamental principles of our legal system and a commitment to the rule of law, justice and fairness;
- a commitment to social change through a common belief that the system must ‘be better’ to deliver justice to more people, more sections of society, more often and more humanely; and
- dedication of time, physical and emotional energy in striving for these ideals and principles. As Tom Bingham argued, ‘aspiration without action is sterile. It is deeds that matter. We are enjoined by the doers of the world, and not hearers only.’
After I spoke, we welcomed guest speaker, Professor Phil Scraton, who spoke about his passionate work in the fight for justice, including through the Hillsborough inquiry and his life-long fight to hold those responsible for the tragedy to account.
After much food for thought from Phil’s talk, everyone was put to work! A skillful catering team from the prison used the event to put their training into practice and prepared an excellent buffet lunch for everyone. Plates were quickly filled and everyone returned to small groups to start familiarising themselves with the legal resources that the students had produced, ready to present short summaries of that work to everyone after lunch. Thirty minutes of animated conversation and note-taking later, everyone came back together, with small groups taking it in turn to present what had been discussed and feedback given by an expert panel of three fantastic lawyers: Clair Dobbin, Lorna Hackett and John Samuels QC. The responses from the panel, and the discussions initiated by the presentations were excellent, highlighting the high levels of skill that had been developed by all students, as well as the urgent gaps in existing information and support, which the resources they had created can go some way to addressing.
After more poetry from another Warren Hill resident, which explored themes of freedom, anxiety and equality, two students shared their experiences of taking part in the law course. Hayden spoke of how the course had expanded her mind:
‘Basically, our universe is expanding. But it isn’t expanding into anything, as if it wasn’t already full. Rather, the borders of the galaxy are stretching, like if you are blowing more air into a full balloon. That’s how I feel about my mindset after the first session of Learning Together. I thought I was open-minded, and I’m sure I was open-minded. But like the galaxy stretching its boundaries, I immediately felt my boundaries expand past limits I didn’t know they had.’
Aaron spoke of how projects like Learning Together can be responsible for wider changes in society and live up to the values of justice and fairness:
‘This wider context of our world today is important to hold in our minds, especially the disparity between our progress and our problems. Because it’s the disparity that paints the most intricate picture, and which tells the most beautiful story, about what this Learning Together team is achieving within our society. As an initiative it’s bringing together two very different environments, two very different sets of people, with two very different types of history, in the name of building a common future together. It’s a way of allowing our progress to inform our problems and our problems to inform our progress, while at the same time, reducing the disparity between the two. In an age where the unifying of perspectives is such a critical part of the solution, this initiative is very important for the future shape of this nation.’
Both speeches moved many people to tears. A standing ovation followed.
Next, we heard from Matt, Head of Learning and Skills at Warren Hill. Matt spoke of how his experience of being part of the Butler Law Course spoke to some of his aspirations for joining the Prison Service and his experience of seeing the difference it made to the students, as well as the importance and transformative potential of education in the prison setting.
Music followed next. First, Ben, another of our excellent Learning Together students, performed a rap that he had written in which he shared some of the pains of transformation and his plans and hope for a brighter future. And then, Snape Music, who shared three of the original songs that had been co-created with residents from Warren Hill. All of the music was uplifting and inspirational, and showcased some of the brilliant creative talent within the room – the perfect precursor to the presentation of certificates of achievement, with a short account provided of each group’s work and growth.
The day finished somewhat as it started, with another poem, this time about experiences of the course, called ‘Two Worlds Collide’, which was written and performed by Shaun. We have published this poem in a previous blog post and you can read it here. After that, Amy and Ruth drew proceedings to a close, sharing some of their reflections on the day and thanking the many people who have worked hard to support and enable our partnership working, including small gifts for some of our Warren Hill colleagues made by Grace Chocolates, a company which produces beautiful chocolates and provides second chances for women with criminal convictions in Scotland. Some of Amy and Ruth’s words included the following:
‘One of the most poignant questions that has emerged for us from today is the question of how we further social change and progress in ways that take everyone with us – in ways that are not naive to the realities of where we are now, and the shortcomings of both of our institutions, but which grow the best of what is and can be, and thereby move us towards our potential. How do we further change in ways that recognise that we can’t stand apart from the system – that we are the system and that we have agency and a responsibility to change it, for the better. What’s exciting about what we are doing here is that our learning community is venturing to speak truth to power by speaking truth to each other and by recognising that we each have power and responsibility. We are positioning our community as standing with and among everyone. We are pooling our talents, experiences and passions to go further together, seeking to build upon the best of ‘what is’ towards an unashamedly optimistic and ambitious vision of what could be. We can’t change the world – but, together, we can the change the bits of our worlds that we are standing in together right now.’
By Jack Merritt, Butler Law Course convener
This post is dedicated to all the students of the Butler Law Course in recognition of their outstanding achievements throughout the course.