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Improving Access to Legal Services for Prisoners Returning to Our Communities

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At a workshop hosted by the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) in Ha Noi in Summer 2016, local lawyers, professors, legal experts, and law students gathered together for an open discussion on how to improve access to legal services for prisoners reintegrating into society.

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) University of Law teamed up with UNDP to create the “Mobile Clinical Legal Services for Prisoners Preparing for Release,” aimed at supplying basic legal information to inmates at five prisons across the south of Viet Nam. This program provides inmates and recently released prisoners with a strong community of support, willing to help with the variety of problems they face.

“Difficulties with identity cards, clearing criminal records, and family issues are common problems,” said Mr. Duong Hoan, Vice Director of the Legal Consultancy Center. He called for continued support of this program, saying in earnest, “Our prisoners are still people, and we need to help our people.”

The distinguishing mark of the program is its personal touch and enhancement of socialization for the prisoners. Fifty law students from the HCMC University of Law held one-on-one counselling sessions with over 600 inmates to assess each person’s distinct, legal needs which built upon the findings of a questionnaire designed and carried out previously by the students. This personalized relationship helped establish trust and a friendly rapport between the prisoners and students, stated Le Ly Von, a second year law student who took part in the project. The ability to trust others and ask for help is vitally important for prisoners returning to a life that has become foreign to them. Perhaps most important is the program’s long-term commitment to our prisoners, offering the counseling services to them even after their release.

Deputy Prison Director of Long Hoa Prison, Senior Lieutenant Colonel, Pham Thi Minh Hai, welcomed the legal aid project, viewing it as a way for all Deputy Prison Directors to perform a better job in creating a safe and secure environment for prisoners. Regarding the collaboration with the University, she proudly noted, “Perhaps we can serve as an example for prisons across Viet Nam.”

The practical experience afforded the law students is a defining feature of the program. The chance to exercise their legal knowledge through application of practical skills will better prepare them for what the practice of law requires. “So far, I know nothing about what inside a prison is like so participating in this activity is a good chance for me to learn about these things,” explained Le Ly Von. If we can bring awareness to the plight of our prisoners through legal efforts, then perhaps we can reverse the stereotypes and discrimination they suffer upon their return to our communities.

For more information, please watch a TV report on the program https://youtu.be/ucChIm0tMWE

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