Public legal education at HMP Altcourse Part 2 by Kelly Thomas and Henry Lambert Open Justice

As an Open University student studying LLB Law, I was given the opportunity to visit HMP Altcourse which is a cat B prison hosting around 1200 men, along with 4 other students and a tutor that I had never met. When I first arrived at Altcourse on that roasting hot June day, I didn’t anticipate, the effect that this journey that I was about to embark upon would have upon my life as both a law student and a person. My fellow students, The Open University tutor, the inmates who we worked with and the staff at the prison, made this experience one that I will never forget, and the experience is a must for any law student.

The reason for our visit was to assist prisoners and answer any general legal questions that they might have. The 2 prisoners that we met who ran the radio show received these questions from the prison population, we then researched the questions and answered the questions on the in-house prison radio station.


The questions we received where questions based on Family Law, Home detention curfew, The Sex offenders Register, The Proceeds of Crime Act and current Data Protection Law.

HMP Altcourse struck me as a modern prison, it was the kind of prison that you see on the TV in American films and dramas. With large exercise yards, wide open spaces between buildings and lots of different programs available to develop the prisoners whilst inside. The maximum amount for time that these lads stay at this prison is 4 years, with lifers moving around different prisons around the country whilst serving their sentences. They can undertake courses in plastering, painting and decorating and joinery, they also undertake family courses, learning how to produce healthy food and learn parenting skills whilst in Prison.

Something that struck me lost for words, apart from the smell of the prison which sent me back to my school days! or the noise of the clunking of the keys in the locks and the clanging of the metal doors as you walk through them was the Art department. The sheer talent of these lads was amazing, the talent we saw was above and beyond anything that I have seen in any art gallery.

So, we met the radio broadcasting team, headed up by Dave who was a prison guard. The two prisoners we met were friendly and complete professionals in their field of radio presenting. We received the questions following visit one. On visit two we familiarized ourselves with the rules of the broadcasting room and planned the final visit when we would present our prepared answers to the prison population. Teamwork assisted us in our presentations, hard work, professionalism and attention to detail aided in our successful presentation at the final visit.

I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this project. The skills I have learnt in this short period of time could not be taught in a classroom or instructed on an online tutorial. The direct interaction with Prisoners at a vulnerable stage in their lives, working together with fellow students to achieve a common goal and being led by a tutor in a managerial role is experience that is a must for any law student. This project has provided me with a first-hand insight into my achievable aim of becoming a solicitor. Henry Lambert – HMP Altcourse visit

I had visited Liverpool a number of times; the usual sites for someone traveling through for work or to visit a friend. I had been to the cathedrals, The Philharmonic, and across the Mersey for a football match. This time was different. This time I was going to prison. With Liverpool Lime Street under construction my journey consisted of a train from London to Liverpool Parkways, then unto Liverpool Central, with another train out to the difficult to pronounce Fazakerley Station, and, finally, a half hour walk past the hospital and along a quiet industrial estate to reach the entrance of HMP Altcourse.

It was June, dry, and right at the height of a heatwave. I stood outside waiting to enter the prison with my new colleagues from the OU and our tutor. I had steeled myself for a different experience. One where hardened take-no-nonsense prison guards would be guiding a naive group of students through a rather grim environment. This expectation was dismissed within the first few minutes of our tour through the prison.

Having dispensed with contraband items (cigarettes, lighters, and cellphones) we were ushered through a set of double doors and then a series of locked gates. The various wings of Altcourse are named after features of the immediately adjoining racing grounds of Aintree. The wings are grouped around two spacious grass pitches and running tracks. The tour around the facilities, gave us a sense of the day-to-day life of the prison population as they endeavour to reintegrate with the outside community. Art, carpentry, IT skills, plastering, welding, beekeeping, and keeping birds of prey, were all on the agenda. The level of engagement by staff and inmates was impressive.

Our task was to help provide content for the prison radio service by researching answers to legal questions put to us by the inmates. Our hosts on the prison staff first contacted the mentors – the more senior prisoners on the wings. These mentors then queried the general prison population and a couple of weeks later a long list of intriguing questions were returned to us. The list was pruned and rationalized, and it came time to divide the topics and hit the books. The questions ranged from the workings of home detention curfew, and sexual offences, to the proceeds of crime act, family law, and data protection. Each of us prepared our topic, with the team meeting online to run through our talks and tighten them up before recording the final show.

This experience at Altcourse, working with both the staff and inmates who were producing a very high standard of radio programming and the team from the OU, has been entirely unique in my academic and professional life. It was fascinating to collaborate with such a diversity of personal and professional backgrounds. It was gratifying to be part of a project where it genuinely felt as if everyone participating came away with something valuable: the inmates running the radio program and the prison staff working on production, the general prison population that might benefit from the information presented, and the OU students being given this opportunity.