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"Prisoners' Rights" course takes Elon Law students to Robben Island

Eighteen students traveled to South Africa for nearly two weeks of experiential learning in a course that compared the prison system in the United States with the one there.

Elon Law students with an interest in prisoners’ rights visited South Africa in December as part of a course that examined the dimensions of America’s penal system and how its evolution compares to the one there.

Led by Assistant Professor Patricia Perkins and accompanied by Assistant Registrar Jane Law, the class visited Johannesburg and Cape Town to meet with with law clerks to Constitutional Court justices, legal counsel for the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services, and journalists with the Wits Justice Project, which is similar to the Innocence Project, to learn first-hand about the law and policies of the South African prison system.

They also toured the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela - a Nobel Laureate and former South African president - was incarcerated for a majority of his 27 years before the fall of apartheid. The visit was guided by a former political prisoner whose incarceration there coincided with Mandela's sentence.

At the Correctional Services Museum at Kgosi Mampuru Prison, a prison guard walked students through a day in the life of a South African prisoner, allowing students to draw comparisons with what they learned during a pre-departure tour of a United States prison and a presentation by Elon Law alum Genna Petre L'15, an attorney with the United States Bureau of Prisons.

Additional guest speakers in the months preceding the South Africa experience provided dynamic presentations to students regarding domestic issues.

The “Prisoners’ Rights” course examined the governmental power to punish, the limits of that power, and the responsibilities a government assumes when exercising its power. Class discussions and assigned readings explored how history shapes an understanding of prisoners’ rights.

Lessons both prior to travel and during the visit to South Africa focused on the law related to conditions of confinement, limitations on the use of force, and the right of access to the courts.  

Students also were assigned a colloquium presentation and paper to allow a dive “deep into a prisoner issue that is personally meaningful ... and to learn from the research and analysis of colleagues on a range of issues.”

“This class gives you an opportunity to study prison systems and policies through a comparative lens,” Perkins said. “You can step outside of what we know here in the United States and expand your understanding of what ‘could have been’ and ‘what could be.’”

Students in the class said that, regardless of career pursuits, it’s important to know the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system in the United States.

Their reflections:

“Our time in South Africa was truly a unique experience. The most impactful aspect of the trip was visiting Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. As if visiting Mandela's prison cell was not enough, we met and had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Christo Brand, who was Mandela's prison guard and friend. We learned a great amount about South Africa's history and their criminal justice system, but I believe it is safe to say that many of us left learning a lot more about ourselves as well.”

Timaura Barfield L’18
Career Interest: Corporate law with concentrations in mergers and acquisitions, and corporate governance

“The trip to South Africa was a wonderful cultural experience, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to travel and learn about the history and current situations South African prisoners face.”

Sarah Johnson L’18
Career Interest: Real estate law

"This trip was surely exhilarating. As someone who wants to work in business and entertainment, taking a trip to South Africa helped me understand how fortunate I am to achieve the goals I have set, especially studying abroad. When a former prisoner of Robben Island mentioned that he did not have any rights during his time as an offender, I knew I was meant to work hard to be the voice for the voiceless."

Charles Sexton L’18
Career Interest: Corporate and entertainment law



Eric Townsend,
1/20/2018 1:20 PM