Students making a change at Otago prison

University of Otago law students (from left) Mary McCartin (21), Michael Morrison (27), Rebecca Ness (19) and Anna Goble (21) are volunteers at Otago Corrections Facility. Photo by Linda Robertson. A group of University of Otago law students are spending time behind bars.

The 11 students have not found themselves on the wrong side of the law but are volunteering for Law for Change, a programme aimed at helping rehabilitate Otago Corrections Facility prisoners.

Law student Mary McCartin, who organises volunteering for Law for Change Otago, said she became involved because she wanted see what it was like on the ''other side'' and relate to prisoners on a ''personal level''.

She was part of a group holding art and card-making classes with prisoners, while another two groups were holding music and sports sessions.

Interacting with prisoners had been much less intimidating than she expected.

''You are always thinking the worst can happen, but when you get there it is not as bad as people say.''

She had helped the prisoners make Mother's Day cards and cards for their children's birthdays.

Fellow volunteer Michael Morrison said the experience could help law students after they graduated.

''It's a really good way for law students, who potentially come from medium to high socio-economic backgrounds, to engage with [the type of people] who could be their clients should they go into criminal [law].''

It was also good for the prisoners, who were ''really keen for outside interaction''.

Corrections regional commissioner Ian Bourke said these interactions were ''really important''.

''The prisoners really look forward to working with the students.

''For some, had they made a different decision or taken a slightly different path, they could be sitting in each other's chairs.

''Engaging with the students helps the offenders see that this could be them,'' Mr Bourke said.

In one of a number of other examples of students helping at South Island prisons, nine Christchurch medical students from the University of Otago recently visited Christchurch Men's Prison, to educate offenders in its youth prison unit about safe sexual health behaviours and sexually transmitted diseases.

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz