Welcome to Vocalise! We are a student-led prison debating initiative administered by the Inn’s Education Department.
Vocalise was founded in 2010 by two student members of the Inn, Alex Just and Florence Iveson, inspired by a longstanding scheme at Cornell University. Our award-winning programme, the first of its kind in the UK, is now in its tenth year.
Vocalise harnesses the enthusiasm of current law students to bring the benefits of debate training to inmates across London. Aspiring barristers are trained as debate ‘mentors’ over the Michaelmas (Autumn) term. Mentors who successfully pass the end-of-training ‘bootcamp’ are then able to begin teaching inmates from January. This year, we will be partnering with HMPs Pentonville, Downview, Thameside, YOI ISIS, Feltham and Wandsworth.
For the first time, somebody is really listening to what I’m saying.
Vocalise represents a unique volunteering opportunity. At a time when prison education departments are overstretched and under-resourced, Vocalise mentors can make a real difference to inmates through honing and sharing their public speaking skills.
Trained Vocalise mentors typically teach in teams of three. Mentors have freedom to build their lesson plans around the interests and abilities of each class, with lessons ultimately preparing inmates for a series of formal debates at each prison. Last year, we ran 12 public debates between prisoners and leading debate teams from Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, Durham and Bristol. In the past, these debates have been judged by senior members and Benchers of Gray’s Inn, including Dinah Rose QC and Joshua Rozenberg.
My time behind bars
Right, I should now have your attention. HMP Thameside was the place. A Monday afternoon in May was when it happened. I needed my passport to get in.
Accompanied by Ruby Shrimpton, then one of our Residential Scholars and a Vocalise Director for 2017-2018, I went to watch a Vocalise session. ‘Vocalise’ is the Gray’s Inn initiative whereby Bar students train prison inmates in the techniques of debating.
This article is not designed to tell the full story. That can be found on these Vocalise pages of the website and, in particular, to the articles written by Ruby and two of her colleagues in the Spring issue of Graya News 2018.
All I want to do is to alert our new students to the initiative.
I watched a group of about 15 prisoners (some plainly “old lags” and some much younger) being trained by Ruby and three Vocalise mentors. It was a revelation. There was a lot of generally good-natured banter, but a real willingness on the part of the inmates to learn debating skills and to participate. One of the number refused initially to say anything, but three hours later was making as good a speech as anyone else. Some of the contributions reflected an ability to think well outside what may have been thought to be the limits of those taking part.
Taking part as a student is worthwhile for any number of reasons: first, it constitutes a real educational service to the inmates and to the Prison Service; second, it opens your eyes to the realities of life behind bars; third, it will give you a great deal of experience in handling difficult and challenging situations. The afternoon I observed went largely without incident. That is not always so. But you will undoubtedly have much to talk about at a pupillage interview, whether at a top commercial set, a general common law set, a family law set or, of course, a criminal set. Any pupillage interviewer should regard this as a fertile source for discussion.
Ruby thought it probably sensible that my identity as a judge should be kept under wraps and, of course, I was dressed casually. At the 10-minute break half-way through the session, one of the inmates came up to me and said “So you’re a judge.”