Learning through working with prisoners
Working with prisoners as they grapple with the One-Stop deportation notice from the Home Office would be challenging for anyone. For a university undergraduate, it is an impressive feat.
Hope O'Grady, who worked such a placement as a third year BA English Language and Linguistics student, drew strongly on the advice of her tutors in making it such a positive learning experience. She describes entering the prison as a real eye-opener, which gave her a profound perspective:
"These are people who have committed one crime and are trying to do everything they can to make themselves better during their time at HMP Huntercombe. I wouldn't have had that perspective if I hadn't met them. They are just great people who made a mistake when they were younger.
"It was particularly difficult when it came to end of the first day and we left the prison: it was a very odd feeling that these people we had been working with for the day weren't able to leave."
The prisoners are given a One-Stop deportation notice when they arrive at the prison, which is a document stating that they are liable to be deported and if they wish to remain in the UK they will need to submit a claim to do so. Hope and her fellow students' role as linguists was to help the prisoners understand this complex document and give them the resources they need to respond to the Home Office Immigration Enforcement (HOIE).
Hope explains that this notice is so full of legal jargon that even a native English speaker would struggle. For many of the prisoners, English is not their first language or they don't speak it at all. They do have the opportunity to study English in prison, but their immediate need is to respond to the one-stop notice, for which they have only 21 days to gather the necessary evidence to support their case to remain in the UK.
The students worked with the stronger English-speakers amongst the prisoners to make a document for them to use during peer advice sessions with the wider prison population . The Peer Advisors' work was part of their own diploma in Peer Advice and Guidance.
"The resource booklet we made with the Peer Advisors aimed to help them support the general prison population, particularly in understanding and responding to the One-Stop Notice. We made posters of what opportunities were available in prison, like mental health services, a reading scheme, trades they can learn, courses and so on. It was also important that they were provided with contact details for all the agencies that they might need.
"This project will hopefully have a lot of impact within the prison, especially if it's rolled out through the St Giles Trust, as the booklet could be used in other prisons where people face the same challenges."
The placement is a strong part of the overall degree for Hope and her colleagues. The reports they produced on completion highlighted the huge imbalance of power between the HOIE (producers of the document) and the foreign national prisoners (receivers of the document).
"We try to break down that imbalance of power," explains Hope.
The placement was part of Hope's Language and Power module within the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at Reading, which is ranked among the top 150 universities in the world in this subject. Indeed, Reading has a highly esteemed reputation and heritage in applied linguistics and language studies: David Crystal OBE (services to English Languages) set up the UK's first linguistics degree here 50 years ago, and sociolinguistics was also born here.
Hope and her fellow students benefit extensively from this depth of heritage. They were able to apply their specific sociolinguistic skills to their placement report, as well as drawing on their understanding of language challenges and power imbalances from their wider coursework.
"Going to HMP Huntercombe and taking part in the projects that the university runs there is definitely something that I would recommend to anyone if they get the opportunity. Producing the report is really interesting as well."
The students were working with the St Giles Trust at the prison, which is a charity dedicated to breaking the cycle of reoffending through a peer-led approach. The students were carefully supported by their tutors in their placement. Hope points out the strength the experience has given her CV.
"For job applications, how many people can say that they went and worked in a prison? That is so interesting to talk about from a language perspective as well."
So, what brought Hope to Reading to study? Part of the appeal, she says, was her dissertation supervisor, Jane Setter, Professor of Phonetics who has been awarded the esteemed National Teaching Fellowship.
"Jane was amazing. She really pushed me and was incredibly supportive. She was one of the reasons I picked Reading. I also fell in love with the campus - it's so beautiful! Definitely the right course and the right place."
We are happy to say that Hope's hard work and talent, combined with her course's valuable experiences and expert teaching, have had a very happy outcome: Hope was awarded a First Class Honours degree in English Language and Linguistics in 2019.
 QS World Rankings by Subject 2019.