Trainee solicitors volunteer in Wheatfield Prison.
The Law Society of Ireland has expanded its Street Law Prisons programme, which is now offered in a number of Irish prison services including Wheatfield Prison, Mountjoy, Dóchas and Arbour Hill, as well as The Pathways Centre, a reintegration facility for prisoners post release.
The Street Law Prisons initiative places trainee solicitors studying at the Law Society of Ireland in prisons to teach prisoners about law in a practical way. The programme aims to promote legal literacy, equality and access to law while also teaching high cognitive and social skills to enhance a participant’s effectiveness in legal matters.
First developed in Georgetown University in the United States, the Law Society has run the Street Law programme in schools since 2013. Over 3,000 secondary school students have completed the programme to date. The Law Society expanded the Street Law programme to prisons in 2017.
Each year over 40 volunteer trainee solicitors take part. The trainee solicitors attend an orientation weekend which prepares them to teach the Street Law course to partnering DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) schools in the local community. A number of volunteers are then selected to teach additional sessions in partnering prison services.
Trainee solicitors Sarah McNulty, Cork, and Ellen Reid, Wexford, were paired for the Prison Law programme and were sent to teach in Wheatfield Prison, facilitated in partnership with the charity Solas and their Compass Programme, and Dóchas.
Sarah McNulty is a trainee solicitor with Cantillons Solicitors, Cork and has been involved with Prison Law programme since September 2018. She said it was an all-round positive and beneficial experience.
“Under the ordinary set of circumstances in life, most people do not see the inside walls of prisons. We were law students who would visit prisons to teach prisoners about the practical side of law, how it affects them in everyday living and engage with them in a positive way.”
The trainee solicitors worked with prisoners to raise their awareness and understanding of the law in areas such as human rights, employment law, refugee rights and discrimination.
“We met the prisoners on a weekly basis and spent one hour going through interesting lessons. These topics included human rights, Garda powers, civil proceedings, criminal procedure, sports law and consent,” she said.
Wexford trainee solicitor Ellen Reid said each class was finished with discussion to see how the lesson was applicable to the prisoners’ lives, to see what they could take from it.
“It was also important to discuss topics that were of relevance and in the news at the particular time. The prisoners were very informed of current affairs topics and followed the news,” said Ms Reid.
Over a period of four to six weeks the Street Law programme aims to promote legal literacy amongst prisoners, as well as social skills to improve participation and effectiveness in personal legal matters.
“It was evident that we were engaging with bright people who were able and willing to communicate their opinions in an articulate manner. They were respectful and polite on each and every occasion and most notably, they were grateful for our time which was expressed openly, freely and without prompt,” said Ms McNulty.
“One of the very few class rules was that it was a safe space where everybody could speak honestly and everybody would receive respect in return. It seemed to work well. Prisoners who had never engaged in educational services before began attending continuously,” she said.
Ms Reid noted interest in the programme was reflected in attendance numbers. She said, “the struggle of attendance begins before the class starts as the arbitrary nature of the prison means some may be allowed in and others not.”
“There are also behavioural and personal issues so weekly attendance represents much more than simply turning up. I was always so grateful to see the numbers increase each week and the same faces return.”
“The most important thing has been the ability to level with them, speak honestly and frankly, and to go in with a positive attitude. It’s very important to praise their input. It’s also equally important to challenge it,” she said.
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