Why every law student should go to prison (clinically speaking)
Joyce Yang, BA/LLB (Hons)
Joyce Yang was surprised by how much she learnt about the law from her interactions with detainees in the Prison Legal Literacy Clinic (LAWS4304).
I was surprised by how much I learnt from the detainees about the law. They knew far more about legal processes than myself, and I was struck by how passionate they were about criminal issues and the justice system.

Editor’s note: This reflective assessment by Joyce Yang, a Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Hons) student, is based upon her experience in the ANU College of Law’s Prison Legal Literacy Clinic (LAWS4304). Established by Law Reform and Social Justice in 2010, the clinic offers students a unique opportunity to work with detainees in a prison setting at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC), the Australian Capital Territory's only adult prison. Students involved in this clinic deliver six legal literacy sessions for a cohort of detainees chosen by AMC management.

I felt anxious prior to our first session at the AMC, but not because I was meeting detainees. What terrified me was whether the experience would shift my personal values and challenge the way I viewed my career. In retrospect, it did.

Contributing to breaking cycles of disadvantage has always been an important personal value. It was also a key motivation for studying law. Given my industry experience where I had worked with disadvantaged groups prior to the clinic, I assumed I had a solid understanding of difference.

The clinic helped me realise two flaws in this assumption. Firstly, exposure does not equate to understanding. My key takeaway from the AMC is that every lived experience is unique and I will never understand another individual’s circumstances fully. Certainly, exposure encourages an appreciation of others’ experiences. However, my interactions with the detainees highlighted the complexity of human nature, and I saw how little I actually understood about anyone. We were placed in the Therapeutic Communities section, which housed 28 detainees with substance-dependence issues – and simply being in the section made this point strikingly clear. How could I claim to even vaguely understand the detainees’ differences when substance abuse has shaped their experiences and I have never struggled with addiction? In this way, my clinical experience humbled me. It reframed my mindset; I now believe that rather than claiming to ‘understand’ others, we can only attempt to connect by ridding our preconceptions and listening with an open mind.

Secondly, I was wrong for thinking my approach on difference was ‘solid’. The paradox in this statement is now obvious; it generalises difference, which inherently cannot be generalised. However, the commencement of the clinic clashed with a personal experience, which illustrated my views on difference were far from ‘solid’. A week before the clinic, a friend from school lost his life due to the actions of a truck driver who was charged with manslaughter. The driver had reversed negligently, removed the body from under the truck and continued with their job. This obviously impacted me, and I was disgusted watching videos of the offender’s family defend him. I remember thinking I could never help someone like that. Then, I realised I would be facing individuals at the AMC who have similarly hurt others. I was overwhelmed by this thought. This was the main reason I was anxious prior to the first session – I had always been at an arms’ length from the impact of criminal offences, but having experienced something close to home, I felt conflicted on what my views towards perpetrators of crime truly were. Through this, I realised I was prejudiced: it was easy for me to blindly preach acceptance of others when I had never been on the receiving end of a hurtful action. It only took one experience that affected me to shake my entire view on empathising across difference.

Unsurprisingly, I found striking the balance between connecting across difference and accepting that people have been hurt by others’ actions to be my main challenge during our sessions. Particularly, I saw a correlation between how friendly or involved detainees were in discussion to how quickly I forgot my sentiments surrounding victims of heinous offences. Initially, I felt guilty about this. But eventually, I came to terms with this being the very point of the course – to emphasise that detainees are also people, and need to be supported rather than stigmatised. I reconciled my guilt by reminding myself to distinguish between listening with an open mind and accepting someone’s actions, but it was challenging to navigate this line.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) is the ACT's prison for persons who are sentenced to full-time imprisonment and remand. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Similarly, it was difficult to remember there are multiple sides to every story, particularly when a detainee shared their experiences of the justice system. For example, I found myself immediately believing detainees’ claims that they were at the AMC for offences they did not commit. It was only upon further reflection outside the prison that I remembered there is often more to the story, offences are complex and perceptions are often emotionally-fuelled. It is unsettling that I have been trained for years to think critically about legal issues, yet in my first face-to-face connections outside a legal environment, critical thinking completely escaped me. To me, this demonstrated the immense power of emotive sway, and a need for more practical skills training in our legal education.

I was surprised by how much I learnt from the detainees about the law. They knew far more about legal processes than myself, and I was struck by how passionate they were about criminal issues and the justice system. It became clear to me that comparatively, I lacked this passion. Upon reflection, I realised a key reason for this is that I have never been impacted by the law in a way which feels noticeable. As legal professionals, many of us have the privilege of viewing law as simply our line of work. In an office job, there are no endless locked gates, barbed-wire fences or carefully designed accommodation units to remind us of how tangibly it impacts lives. This was why the AMC experience felt so surreal – I was able to finally appreciate the effects of the legal system by seeing them in the most blatant way. Certainly, before the clinic, I had not given this disparity much thought.

I was upset that our sessions ended early. I can only imagine how much more I would have learnt had they continued. In COVID-19 times, a comment the Therapeutic Communities supervisor made about seeing detainees smile for the first time all week during our session stuck with me. COVID-19 highlights that despite differences, the human experience is fundamentally universal. I genuinely hope the detainees are well-supported in their mental and physical health during this challenging time. If there is anything I learnt from this clinical experience, it is that detainees are equally human.

Why should every law student go to prison? Because it’s something you have to experience to know how much it can impact you. The clinic has challenged the way I view others, our legal education and my career. I grew immensely in just a few weeks, and I truly hope more law students will embrace this unique and memorable experience.