Taking students inside

When we imprison people, we remove them from society – the razor wire marks a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The divide is often sharpest in our minds. Inside are the criminals. And if we’re honest about it, they scare us.

Each semester, a group of ANU law students face this fear. They go inside to deliver the Law Reform and Social Justice Prison Legal Literacy Program at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, the ACT’s adult prison.

There they discover the human reality behind the criminal label. They teach law and learn invaluable lessons about law, life and the capacity for human connection across difference.

Of course, some detainees are dangerous and there are many whose crimes have caused enormous pain and suffering. But if we scratch the surface to understand who we imprison, too often we find our first peoples in grossly disproportionate numbers, people struggling with mental illness, suffering from addiction, childhood trauma and economic marginalisation.

It is hard to imagine life experiences more different to those of typical law students.

The Prison Legal Literacy Program began in 2010, led by Jeremy Boland, the then Official Prison Visitor and ANU College of Law Lecturer. In conversations with detainees, he learned they knew very little about the law and legal processes that controlled their lives. With access to some of the best and brightest law students in Australia – students with a genuine desire to use their learning for the benefit of others – Jeremy designed the program to meet this need.

The model involves groups of six law students attending with an academic supervisor to run a series of legal workshops. The initial session establishes relationships, sets ground rules for discussion and identifies topics.Detainees choose topics, which range from criminal law and procedure, to family law and child welfare, laws relating to our democratic processes and human rights to tenancy. Students then prepare a series of interactive and engaging sessions that may involve detainees unpacking the structures of law, participating in simulations or acting as judge in a mock sentencing case or parenting dispute.