Passing the Bars
In defense of inmates, students in HLS's Prison Legal Assistance Project test their legal skills and their beliefs
1L Candace Morey is driving to one of Massachusetts' maximum- security prisons to represent the first client of her legal career. She's done everything she could to prepare. Yet she knows she's likely to lose--it almost seems to be expected. Her client has been accused of violating prison regulations. A correction officer will act as prosecutor, judge, and jury--and it's her client's word against those of the officer's staff.
This is the sort of uphill battle faced each year by HLS students in the Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), who give their time to represent the state's indigent prisoners in disciplinary and parole hearings. But the HLS program drives home that even if students ultimately lose, they can still make their client's case, raise objections for an appeal, let prison officials know that somebody is watching.
In return, "PLAPpers" get real-world advocacy experience. PLAP is the only clinical volunteer organization at the School in which students represent prisoners, often serving as their last line of defense. (Inmates who can't pay for legal representation have no right to a court-appointed lawyer for these hearings.) The very freedom of inmates rides on parole hearings. And although disciplinary hearings may seem more routine, inmates can receive sanctions as serious as loss of credit toward early release or solitary confinement 23 hours a day.
An offshoot of the Harvard Defenders, PLAP came into being in the early '70s during a time of prison unrest. Student members initially assisted inmates with habeas corpus actions. But after an uprising at the state prison in Concord, in cooperation with the superintendent, PLAP students worked on-site at the prison to address inmate grievances. By the late '70s, PLAP had come to focus on parole hearings and disciplinary hearings, as it does today. According to supervising attorney John Fitzpatrick '87, who was an active member when he was a student, the organization is "uniquely democratic." He supervises all legal work and Pamela Cameron is the office's "nerve center," Fitzpatrick says. But the students, who often refer to PLAP as "free-spirited" and "nonhierarchical," do much of the training. PLAP's student board, on which all experienced members can serve, decides each year on the organization's priorities.
In the first semester of this school year, the PLAP membership includes 70 1Ls and 18 2Ls and 3Ls. Although the hope is that most of these students will want to represent prisoners, the only requirement for membership is one hour a week in the PLAP office. 2Ls and 3Ls hold office hours, teaming up with new students who answer calls and letters from prisoners and set up hearings.
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By mid-October the office is in full swing. On the wall there's a quote from Gandhi and a big sign warning students not to identify themselves as an inmate's attorney. There's a list of prisoners they are not to take calls from. There's a basket full of letters from inmates waiting to be answered. 3L Stephanie Denton, PLAP's executive board coordinator, has an inmate on the line. "Are you in the hole now?" she asks. He's out of the prison's isolation unit, but he says he's being charged for signing a form inappropriately: he wrote, "with warmest regards." Cameron, the program's administrative coordinator, has a question for Denton, and then it's on to a call from an inmate who has been given a disciplinary ticket over a television playing in his cell. He asks Denton a question. She tells him she's a Libra and suggests he request a continuance so someone can take his case. In the meantime the other lines are lighting up in the small office in Austin Hall. 1L Jonathan Goldin dives in, interrupting Denton with questions as needed.
Candace Morey has been reviewing the disciplinary hearing she has volunteered to take on: the case of Robert Parker (not his real name; at PLAP's request, the Bulletin has changed all inmates' names). Denton puts in a call to a prison officer about the case. Part of the students' mission this year is to improve their relationship with prison officials, and Denton asks the officer whether he remembers her. Of course he does, he says. He never forgets a pretty face. He tells her she should know that the prisoner in question is "a problem child." He's serving a 20-year sentence in MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole and is accused of harboring a dangerous weapon and an escape tool. Morey says that she is a little nervous about the case. But she and Denton speak to Fitzpatrick, a defense attorney in Boston, and make plans to rent a car and go out to meet with the inmate the next day.
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