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Amplifying the voices they don’t want you to hear

Heidi McCafferty (she/her) is a postgraduate student at Birkbeck, University of London, studying for an MSc in Criminology. She is a mother, intersectional feminist, anti-racism activist and founder of Affinity Research and Development. She lives near Oxford with her family and plans to begin her PhD next year.

I first visited Warm Springs Correctional Center in 2019. It was beside the jarring, razor-sharp fences that stretch on for eternity, that I fell into conversation with other women waiting to visit. One had been up since 3am and had driven from the Bay Area through the stunning but treacherous mountains of Nevada to reach her son.

“He has been down for 20 years,” she told me as her eyes filled with tears. “He made a bad decision as a teenager”. Another, a primary school teacher, told me with a weary smile, how she visits her nephew there every weekend.

I initially started visiting a pen pal I had who was part of the Pups on Parole Programme. Led by the Nevada Humane Society, it trains incarcerated men to rehabilitate stray and last-chance dogs, so they can find homes. I was interested in the programme’s impressive low recidivism rates and the hope it gave to both the dogs and their trainers. I gradually learned more stories about those who are serving prison sentences. I heard examples of degrading and inhumane treatment inflicted by certain Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) staff members in various facilities, from unwarranted stints in solitary confinement, to extreme physical and emotional violence, compared with stories of NDOC staff who genuinely care, who act with professionalism and compassion and shine like beacons within these bleak, dark spaces. It is easy to feel initially overwhelmed when you explore the realities of the US ‘justice’ system. What can you do when you live 5000 miles away? That was the question I asked myself…

I would like to introduce you to Michael Wadsworth, another friend I met through the programme. He has kindly granted me permission to share his story. He has been in prison since 18. He was sentenced to up to 100 years by an all-white jury for his role in a tragic accident as a teenager. Michael had a promising football career, but just before he was due to begin a program at Feather River College in California, he was attacked outside a store by a group of men. While being chased, Michael took out the gun he kept on him for self-defence, as millions of Americans do, and shot at the ground to slow them down. In a tragic twist of fate, a bullet hit the leg of one of the attackers and caused him to lose his life. An all-white jury decided Michael was guilty of first-degree murder. This means a premeditated, planned act, the most serious of all prosecutions. That was the day the State of Nevada stole Michael’s life.

Michael has been in prison for 16 years. All his appeals failed. His family does not have the $50,000 needed for an attorney. Just one 15-minute local phone call from the facility costs the equivalent of £1.50. After spending time getting to know Michael and his inspiring Nana, who demonstrates psychological strength and Christian faith I can only dream of, we set up the #FreeMichael campaign. We built a website, recorded a short film, scripted and voiced by Michael, set up social media, a crowd-funding campaign and even launch a Free Michael podcast series on 12 March. We have already raised over $5500, but need $45,000 more to secure the representation of Kristina Wildeveld, one of the top attorneys in Nevada. She has already had a consultation with Michael and will help us get Michael’s case presented to the Nevada Pardons Board. If successful, he could be eligible for parole as soon as 2025. It would mean Michael still has a chance of living his life, of following his dream of becoming a youth mentor and having a family.

I am a mother, run a business and am a committed activist, so I was reluctant to throw a Master’s in. But Birkbeck makes studying this way possible. My studies here are allowing me to gain the academic foundation I need to progress. It is teaching me how to conduct my own research and gather my own evidence. I chose the MSc Criminology  in the Law School because the modules were engaging and relevant to my activism. It is helping to expand my knowledge and understanding, so I am better able to amplify the voices of those trapped in a system designed to silence them.

I plan to begin my PhD next year and will focus on exposing the culture of racism within NDOC through digital storytelling, allowing former inmates to anonymously share their experiences and allow their collective voices to help implement change.

To close, I would like to reflect on how the media and government assure us that without incarceration, the world would fall into apocalyptic-style chaos. But what the media and government misses, is how many men and women remain caged, often for decades, for poor decisions they made as teenagers, for addictions, trauma or because they were failed by the system designed to protect them. They neglect to highlight the numerous stages of missed-interventions, due to a lack of resources and state funding that could have changed the courses of so many lives. They fail to respond to questions around why members of Black and Minority ethnic communities continue to receive disproportionate, harsher sentences than white individuals. The evidence shows US prisons aren’t effective, they don’t rehabilitate, they make private companies billions of dollars each year, strip families of resources, separate parents from their children, nurture violence and exacerbate mental ill-health and trauma.

We all have a duty to challenge systemic racism and transform structures like the US ‘justice’ system. Especially the most privileged of us in society.

Black Lives Matter, they always have, and they always will.

Find out how you can support the #FreeMichael campaign at www.free-michael.com.

 

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Taking on the challenges of the pandemic to embrace a world of opportunities in London

Flexibility and daytime freedom are what led Oghenemine Djebah to choose Birkbeck to study an MA/LLM Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. In this blog, the Nigerian student shares his journey so far with us.    

Oghenemine Djebah

Oghenemine Djebah

After obtaining an LLB from the Delta State University, Oghenemine Djebah enrolled at the Nigerian Law School, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws and was subsequently called to the Nigerian bar. Since then, he has been in active legal practice in Nigeria.

He worked for two notable law firms (Rotimi Jacobs & Co. and Zatts Law Chambers) and volunteered to give free legal services through a registered NGO (Fundamental Rights Enforcement Enlightenment and Defense).

During a 2019 visit to London, Oghenemine fell for the culture and diversity of the city. So, when his desire to gain more in-depth knowledge of the workings of the law inspired him to pursue an LLM he naturally focused his search on universities in the capital. “I started searching for an institution that would be flexible enough to let me work or volunteer while I studied. I found out about Birkbeck on the internet and the evening lectures tallied with the type of institution I was looking for, so I applied and was given admission into the School of Law.”

As the pandemic took hold around the world, Oghenemine considered deferring his admission by a year. “Because of the financial challenges caused by COVID-19 it was quite a challenge getting the initial deposit in time. The management of Birkbeck recognised this and made the concession of reducing the initial deposit by 90% for all international students, which gave me the opportunity to meet all of the requirements and enroll for the 2020 session.” In recognition of his potential Oghenemine was subsequently awarded a Birkbeck International scholarship and a School of Law Postgraduate Award.

The pandemic’s impact was not only financial as, first the Autumn, then the Spring terms were moved online. Oghenemine embraced the challenges and attended online orientation, public lectures as well as the international student’s virtual event at the beginning of the academic year. He reflected: “The international student event was really helpful for me in understanding my role as an international student, including the benefits and how to tap into them.”

Oghenemine has also been making good use of the online services available to students: “The Birkbeck Careers platform is great and enables students not only to see available jobs and apply but also to help teach them how to prepare for interviews and tailor their CVs and cover letters to meet professional standards.”

With a few months of studies under his belt, the Nigerian student assesses his time learning online. “This is actually my first time doing any course via virtual learning. It is quite challenging because I do not get to meet with other students and make good connections which is also part of the university life. However, the lectures have been going great, better than I expected because we are provided with pre-recorded videos for each lecture. The COVID-19 pandemic has made everything different, from living, to studying. Not being able to meet physically and always being indoors has made this period a bit difficult. I look forward to having the opportunity to meet physically with my fellow students and lecturers before graduating from Birkbeck.”

More than anything the Law student sees and embraces the positives studying in London and at Birkbeck can bring: “London is well known for welcoming international students globally, including from Nigeria. Being a student in London enables you to be a part of a well-integrated international and diverse community. London is a city with a lot of opportunities for everyone beyond academic programs. I advise all Nigerians who wish to study internationally to study in London and join a diverse community and tap into the available opportunities.”

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“In such times (…) one has to renew their minds and spirit to focus on the goal”

Nozipho Nomzana Mziyako from Eswatini, a Chevening scholar and MSc Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability student, shares her thoughts about studying in the UK in these extraordinary times.

Nozipho at the London Eye

 

There have been many things I had planned and hoped for by applying to study in the UK: like, making new friends and forming networks on campus and beyond, exploring the UK and Europe, alas it is definitely an extraordinary time and the ongoing pandemic cannot be ignored.   In such times these things seem far-fetched and each day one has to renew their minds and spirit to focus on the goal: to do one’s best and make the most of this experience. Studying at Birkbeck has helped with this renewal of mind not only through its easy learning experience but also by being helpful in certain areas that could have, if not handled well, hindered my first term experience.

With only less than a month left to depart my home country, I still had no idea where I would be accommodated and did not know any other students to share accommodation with. In an unexpected turn, the Birkbeck International office reached out just to check up on me and I relayed my frustration. Through them, I found International Students House, which has been homely and provides various activities to ensure student wellbeing, such as; physical health activities, study rooms, security and a restaurant among many other facilities. I feel at home. The office has also been helpful in facilitating a number of issues on my Biometric Residence Permit and Bank account requirements.

Online classes experience

Although no one expected to be learning online, I think Birkbeck has ensured that theNozipho London street Chrsitmas process has worked to the benefit of students and this I got to really appreciate when preparing for my exams. With the pre-recorded Panopto lecture sessions, one can pace themselves, pause and rewind to get a better understanding of each week’s lessons. This way, you have focused questions for your lecturers which can be asked and addressed during the live sessions on the Moodle platform, if not, lecturers are available via email and tend to be very responsive. Moodle live sessions are recorded and saved, so even if the pre-recorded session and live lecture make no sense (yes, it happens), you can still go back to the platform and access material for revision and understanding.  While you cannot see everyone during the live sessions, you do get to engage with the lecturer and the class with audio and video on and there are group break-away sessions for one-hour or so discussions where group representatives then provide feedback back to the whole class.

Preparing for class: Discipline and Managing priorities

Live sessions are usually 90 minutes – two hours or more if there is group work. Preparing for a lecture requires a lot of discipline and priority management. There are a number of reading materials and pre-session activities one has to go through to fully grasp the weekly sessions. What Birkbeck has done is provide these on Moodle and there’s a box to tick upon completion, which I have found helpful in tracking my progress. Furthermore, all (if not most) recommended readings are available on the university’s library platforms.

There’s really no formula that can be applied in covering so much material and activitiesNozipho at her working station before and post-lecture sessions. However, through the Birkbeck Futures platform, which provides weekly learning content on how to, for instance, manage your time, I have created my own way of managing priorities and not necessary time, in this I have included time for myself and engaging with others, as a task. Even if it is two hours or even a day off to myself, to explore the Royal Parks, renowned Landmarks and the city using the tube or London double-decker bus; putting myself in the equation has assisted me in clearing my mind and creating a road map to tackling my module works. Sitting at your desk, overthinking and having little movement can have a negative impact on your productivity.

Gaining mentorship

While each student is given a personal tutor to assist with choosing modules and discussing the course, applying for the mentorship program has been one of my highlights in the first term. I am currently undergoing a career transition and my thoughts are everywhere. Through Birkbeck’s mentorship program, I have gained unexpected guidance and support from my mentor. I am now beginning to focus my goals and clarify my interests which keeps me grounded and reminds me why I set out to do my chosen course. The Birkbeck Futures team has numerous programmes that can assist in aligning career aspirations and I plan on completing them soon.

The journey continues…

In October, Birkbeck hosted a socially distanced meet and greet for Chevening 2020-Nozipho in the Park 2021 Scholars. This gesture helped us get to know each other and through this, support systems have been formed. I really look forward to face-to-face sessions, meeting my lecturers, and to having conversations and chilling at Birkbeck facilities.  We hope that this term and year gets better, that there are fewer cases and deaths and that we get to fully engage with our colleagues, lecturers, and the UK. Until then, we keep safe and do our best in our studies.

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