There they discover the human reality behind the criminal label.
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.
For students, the program is an opportunity to put their learning into practice, to see how the system works from ground level and to understand the experience of those upon whom the law acts. Topics range far beyond the standard law curriculum, so it’s a challenge.
Often detainees know much more about the reality of law than students. As one student recently reflected, their experience in the program highlighted ‘the gap between the law on paper and the law in practice’.
The program contextualises and invigorates student learning, opens their eyes, and calls them to ask questions about ‘justice’.
Detainees say the program offers an opportunity to ‘engage intellectually’, ‘consider different perspectives’, learn to ‘navigate legal processes’, ‘speak and be comfortable’ and ‘to work together’. It enables them to better understand their life situation within the system of laws and, in no small measure, to contribute to the learning of students.
Underpinning this two-way learning is something surprising – an experience of equality. This manifests in a willingness on the part of both students and detainees to speak with a desire to explain and listen, openly and respectfully. Invariably, the humanity of these interactions leads to the realisation, as one student says, that ‘people are people, and despite what they have done, we are more the same than we are different’.
The Prison Literacy Program clearly matters to the students and detainees. But why should it matter to us? It matters because there is another important reality we must face – one that should cause us to reflect on the importance of connection and understanding the slim divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
With very few exceptions, all those we imprison will return to society. If we hope for them that they will live a life according to the law, then empowering them to navigate and better understand the maze of legal processes relating to their lives is essential.
This was first published in ANU Reporter, Vol 49, number 3, September 2018.
Dr Anthony Hopkins is a Senior Lecturer in the ANU College of Law and Director of Law School Clinical and Internship Courses.