More than 1200 prisoners in southern provinces received needed advice to overcome complex legal and social barriers to their full reintegration into society
Divorce, custody of children, finding employment, retraining, navigating probation and accessing social services are among the most difficult challenges facing prisoners upon release. In the past three years, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the HCM City University of Law have brought law students to nine prisons across southern provinces to provide free legal advice for prisoners to help their reintegration into society.
“I used to be afraid about being released, I didn't have any money, so I didn't know who to ask for advice,” said Ms. Lê Thị Sáu who was recently released after a long prison sentence in the province of Long An. “Through participating in the programme, I learned that I have rights like many people, and my criminal record doesn’t prevent me from restarting my life”.
Ms. Sáu is only one of many prisoners who are released back into communities each year, and without proper advice, many risk reoffending and returning to prison.
More than 100 law students were trained in how to provide legal advice to prisoners and build their practical legal skills
“I wanted to contribute my strength as a law student to provide legal advice to prisoners,” said Thanh Uyen, a student of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law, who participated in the Legal Consultancy for Prisoners Programme, led by the University’s Centre for Legal Consultancy since 2016. The Programme is run in partnership with UNDP, who have worked closely with the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) to support the development of adversarial principles of criminal justice in Viet Nam over the last four years. By participating in prison visits and legal consultations, Uyen has developed a new understanding of her role as a law student, “In my opinion, providing free legal advice is the responsibility of law students to give back to the community”.
Uyen is one of over 100 law students who have gone through the Programme. The students learn from experienced lawyers and law professors on how to provide legal advice for prisoners, while also building their practical legal skills. The programme also gave them invaluable insights into the criminal justice in Viet Nam. In turn, the prisons are provided with a team of enthusiastic and skilled law students to deliver an essential service for inmates, to ensure prisoners don’t reoffend upon release and return to prison.
Students adopt entertaining and interactive methods to inform prisoners of their rights.
“Often to begin with, many prisoners are reluctant to meet and share with legal consultants, especially who have high positions. But through the Programme, we have seen more and more of the prisoners come forward looking to work with the students,” said Mr. Duong Hoan, Director of the Centre for Legal Consultancy and Manager of the Programme. He added that “Prisoners often feel more comfortable working with students instead of receiving advice from police, prison wardens, Government officials or even lawyers. To date, using entertaining and interactive methods for advising prisoners, students have helped over 1,200 prisoners across nine prisons in southern Viet Nam, including over 100 female inmates.
UNDP has partnered with the University of Law on the Legal Aid for Prisoners’ Programme for three years. “Everybody wins here. The prisoners receive much needed advice to overcome complex legal and social barriers to their full reintegration into society, reducing the likelihood they will reoffend, thus protecting the communities they live in,” said Ms. Catherine Phuong, UNDP Assistant Resident Representative in Viet Nam. “The impact on the students has equally been as significant: we have seen their skills improve, their confidence grow, and most interestingly their interest in criminal justice and criminal defense increase during their time in the Programme,” she added.
Another former prisoner, Mr. Ho Van Ghi, welcomed the long term approach of continuing to receive advice after their return to their communities, which has supported him in returning to employment. “The programme is great, meaningful, and also involved a lot of hard work. My long term hope is for the programme to continue, as this should not just be a ‘one-off’, like so many other support programmes”.
The achievements of the Center and its Director have been recognized with an award in 2018 from the Chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Commitee. Prison officials from the Ministry of Public Security who participated in the Programme have further welcomed the initiative and have called on partners to continue providing both legal advice for prisoners and training for prison officials on how they can also play their role in helping prisoners reintegrate into society.
“The support from INL has been critical to the success of the project”, Ms. Catherine Phuong added, “We would like to welcome other potential partners to work with us on this important initiative and see if we can take it to more law schools, work with more students, and ultimately advance the rights of prisoners to reintegrate them back into the community”.