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Trainee solicitors are going into prisons to teach prisoners about the law

“It is not just someone banging on about the law for an hour, there are lesson plans in place.”

Image: Shutterstock/GNT STUDIO

AN INITIATIVE WHERE trainee solicitors teach prisoners about the law has been extended to more prisons across the country by the Law Society of Ireland.

As part of the scheme, trainee solicitors teach prisoners about different aspects of the law in Mountjoy, Dóchas Women’s Prison and The Pathways Centre. It was extended to Wheatfield and Arbour Hill in 2018. 

The hour-long classes take place once a week over the course of four to six weeks. Sarah McNulty, a trainee solicitor with Cantillons Solicitors who taught in Mountjoy and Dóchas from October 2018 to January 2019, said that it changed her perception of prisoners.

“For that one hour, we were all just human beings,” McNulty told TheJournal.ie. “It was great to be stimulating the prisoners’ minds in a much more progressive way than locking them in a cell for 23 hours a day.”

McNulty and another trainee solicitor Ellen Reid worked to raise prisoners’ awareness and understanding of areas such as human rights, employment law, refugee rights and discrimination.

The trainees do not give out free legal advice or discuss individual cases. The classes focus on teaching and discussing legal rights and the responsibilities arising from those rights.

The programme is part of a wider education scheme called Street Law which began in secondary schools and was extended to prisons in 2017. Over 40 trainee solicitors take part in the overall programme each year and a few are selected to teach in prisons.

Dr Freda Grealy started the Street Law programme in 2013 after observing the scheme at Georgetown University in the US.

“It is giving the prisoners something positive to do as well as encouraging them to think about freedom of speech and human rights,” said Grealy.

“It is something that can help their confidence and self-esteem of the prisoners. They can engage and have opinions. It is not just someone banging on about the law for an hour, there are lesson plans in place.”

Between 15 and 20 prisoners attended each lesson with Reid and McNulty. They said the weekly attendance was often affected by external factors such as behaviour and not being allowed to attend by the guards, but they frequently saw the same faces return week after week.  

Prisoners expressed honesty during the class discussions about issues such as the right to die.

“One prisoner opened up about the fact that his mother had been on life support, which none of the other prisoners had known about,” said McNulty.

Ellen Reid said that there were no prison officers nearby during their time teaching but they never encountered any problems with the prisoners.

“It has been one of the best things I have done in the law,” Reid told TheJournal.ie.  

“Going in as a lawyer, you only get to see the waiting and meeting areas, but we were brought through the thick of it which was very eye-opening,” said Reid.

She emphasised the lack of resources in the prisons and the damage this causes to prisoners at the time and in the future.

“Mental health is so important for everyone but especially in prisons, everything is so heightened,” Reid said.

“There is the ability to change and there is some sort of power in education especially in the younger prisoners.

“We are not preparing them for anything positive when they leave within the current situation.”

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