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Learning from the inside

18 May 2018

King’s law students worked side-by-side with inmates at HMP Belmarsh in south-east London, giving the students unique insights into the UK’s criminal justice system and translating their learning from knowing the law to practising the law.

Over six weeks, students and prisoners at HMP Belmarsh came together in small groups to explore public interest law, debating subjects such as fracking and its impact on local authorities.

At each four-hour workshop, the groups discussed and prepared materials to present at a mock trial at the end of the project.

Speaking about the experience, law student Liz Smillie, who plans to pursue a career in criminal law, said, 'The setting in which you learn makes all the difference.'

'We were all being thrown into new areas of legal thought and practice - the difference being that some of us were men who had been deeply impacted by our criminal justice system. It makes facts and debates stick in your mind.’

A real experience 

The experience of working at HMP Belmarsh brought mutual benefits to undergraduates at The Dickson Poon School of Law and to the inmates living in the prison.

It gave Belmarsh inmates the chance to interrogate the inner workings of the legal system in the UK while offering law students professional work experience within London’s only Category A prison.

Both students and inmates developed their problem-solving skills, with students focusing particularly on their active listening skills.

A culture of connection

One of the distinctive aspects of the project was the non-divisive culture it inspired: a learning environment without separate categories for ‘students’ or ‘prisoners’ who were all new to public interest litigation, the focus for the module.

‘We were all students together. Some from King’s; some from Belmarsh,’ said Liz Smillie. ‘Some of us were vocal; others were silent. Some had done all the reading; others hadn’t. It had nothing to do with which group you were from. In that sense, it was just like any other class.’

Reflecting on the impact of the partnership, she added, ‘We were going to prison, not as an inmate, not as a visitor, and not as a tourist; rather, to work with other students. Not with prisoners – with other students who happen to be in prison.’

I learned to reflect on legal issues from multiple perspectives – including through the lenses created by prisoners’ perspectives. – Rocky Howe, student at The Dickson Poon School of Law

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