Prisoners’ Legal Services: Working to Depoliticize Incarceration

By John Carroll

On May 16, 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to mentally and physically disabled prisoners seeking parole, requiring  the state  to assist them in developing release plans that address their disabilities with an eye toward reducing the chances that the paroled individual will re-offend and be returned to prison.

Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiff, Richard Crowell, in this landmark case and was very pleased with his victory. Ensuring proper health care—including mental health services—for prisoners with serious medical needs is one of the organization’s four litigation priority areas.

PLS’s other litigation priorities are staff brutality, unfair and discriminatory segregation, and unconstitutional conditions of confinement, all of which—along with the health issue—the organization believes have reached crisis proportions in the state. For example, Massachusetts is one of a small handful of states in the country that allows solitary confinement for up to 10 consecutive years for one disciplinary offense. PLS is currently supporting proposed legislation to reform the use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts, and the organization created a powerful seven-minute documentary video about the lasting effects of solitary confinement. The organization is also advocating legislation that would allow for compassionate release, such as was recently granted former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi at the federal level. Massachusetts is one of only three states that does not provide incapacitated or terminally ill prisoners the ability to die in their community.

Founded in 1972, PLS is funded chiefly by the Supreme Judicial Court and augmented by grants from other funders, notably the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and the Boston Bar Foundation. Led by executive director Leslie Walker, the organization’s small staff of nine lawyers, four paralegals and three support staff serves the entire state and county correctional system. Prisoners and their family members often make contact with PLS through its website or through defense attorneys who alert the organization when they have concerns about how detained or incarcerated clients are being treated within the prison system. Judges occasionally contact them for the same reason. PLS also disseminates a newsletter throughout the correctional system.

Walker’s interest in prisoner’s rights is rooted in her experience representing an inmate on an administrative charge—which she ultimately proved untrue—as a young Northeastern University law student. She recalled how her client once pointed out to her that, among the 45 prisoners in his cell block, many were relatives and friends from the client’s neighborhood. At that point she realized that crime is a byproduct of poverty. The more Walker studied the field, the more she wondered about the purpose of punishment in light of statistics showing that more than 40 percent of prisoners in Massachusetts will be re-incarcerated within three years.

Prison does not prepare prisoners to re-enter society, Walker concluded. They leave with few marketable skills and because of their criminal record, many are barred from living with their families in public housing, families that could potentially provide material and emotional support, creating a recipe for failure in the free world.

Over time, Walker’s philosophy on incarceration has evolved into three principles: 1) reward good behavior 2) ignore bad behavior if you can, and 3) punish in as limited a manner as possible.

“If we viewed corrections in a less politicized way, with a greater respect for the intrinsic dignity of the of the incarcerated population,” says Walker, “we would see that building more jails reinforces the problem rather than reducing it.”

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John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Community Legal Aid: Fighting Poverty and Working for Justice for Over 50 Years

By John Carroll

When she sought help from Community Legal Aid (CLA), Brittany was a single, working mother from Central Massachusetts who put her children to bed each night on the floors of the homes of her family and friends. With no stable living arrangements and very little money, she had lost her sense of safety and security.

Prior to becoming homeless, Brittany (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) and her two young sons had been living in a mold-infested apartment with heat that didn’t go above 52 degrees. After she was hospitalized with pneumonia, she fell behind on the rent because she was unable to work. Her landlord took her to court and the family was forced to pack up and leave. Unable to find suitable housing, Brittany applied for emergency shelter but was denied.

CLA helped put Brittany and her children back on the road to stability and independence. Because she had fallen behind on her rent for legitimate medical reasons, her CLA attorney successfully argued that the state had wrongfully denied the emergency shelter for which she was eligible. Soon she and her children were safely placed in shelter and began the search for a permanent home without worrying where they’d wind up sleeping every night. Meanwhile, Brittany’s son was worried that he would have to change schools because their shelter was in a different school district. A CLA education attorney stepped in and worked with both towns to ensure Brittany’s son could continue to attend the school that he loved.

Helping low-income families and individuals escape homelessness is just one way CLA serves as a lifeline for thousands of clients each year. CLA provides legal assistance to eligible people in the most basic areas of need: homelessness prevention, employment, education, elder law, immigration, and family law, mostly for domestic violence survivors. CLA’s work is augmented by a panel of approximately 175 private attorneys who annually donate more than 2,700 hours of legal services to the organization.

With a service area that stretches from Worcester to Massachusetts’ western border, CLA serves all of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties. It has full-service offices in Worcester, Northampton, Pittsfield and Springfield, along with satellite offices in Fitchburg, Greenfield, Holyoke, North Adams, Southbridge and Milford. No other legal services program in Massachusetts serves such a broad swath of the state.

In addition to covering the largest geographical area of Massachusetts’ regional legal aid programs, CLA’s roots are among the oldest in the state. Most civil legal aid programs trace their birth to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1964, which led to the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity and other anti-poverty programs. Having been established in 1951 as the Legal Aid Society of Worcester by a group of attorneys from the Worcester County Bar Association, CLA’s origins precede even those programs.

As it has over the last six-plus decades, CLA will continue to grow and adapt to meet the needs of the most vulnerable residents of Central and Western Massachusetts, ensuring they have access to justice and the dignity that all people deserve, regardless of their ability to pay for legal help.

When her case was resolved, Brittany declared her attorney “a miracle worker.”

“You work so hard,” she said, “and you have gotten my family so far with your kindness alone.”

At CLA, it’s all in a day’s work.

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John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Community Legal Services and Counseling Center: A Hub for Justice and Healing

By John Carroll

In the words of Executive Director Mojdeh Rohani, the aim of Community Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSACC) is simply “to respect and uphold human dignity.” It does this by providing free civil legal aid and affordable psychological counseling to low-income people so that they may meet their most basic needs for employment, housing, health and safety.

CLSACC’s unique interdisciplinary service model addresses clients’ legal issues and mental health needs because they often go hand in hand. A woman escaping intimate partner violence, for instance, may need legal assistance to obtain a protective order against her abuser. She may also need counseling to help her recover from the trauma she has suffered, so that she can find or maintain employment and a safe place to live, and generally stabilize her life. CLSACC’s legal program staff, when needed, utilize in-house and volunteer mental health professionals for case management, supportive counseling, forensic evaluations, and/or for consultation to work effectively with their clients and to achieve the best legal outcome for them.

Since its founding nearly 50 years ago, CLSACC has helped tens of thousands of low-income individuals and families facing non-criminal legal matters. Last year, the organization served 1,500 individuals and families.

CLSACC has grown significantly in recent years, doubling its staff from nine to 21 in 2017. The biggest growth has been to programs assisting refugees and immigrants, which prompted the addition of immigration attorneys and clinicians with expertise in treating clients who have experienced torture and/or trauma.

The Immigration Program, begun in 1985, was expanded in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2015 CLSACC established the Center for Global Human Rights and Resilience to more accurately reflect the nature of the agency’s work with refugees and immigrants. In addition to helping the hundreds of local residents who walk through the door, CLSACC assists asylum seekers statewide (with most living in greater Boston). Nearly 50 percent of asylum seekers are torture survivors from more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America, including those escaping Syria’s civil war, the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and state-sanctioned extreme homophobia in Uganda.

Recently, one of the Counseling Program’s doctoral students, Twyla Wolfe, established a pilot micro-lending project aimed at helping these newcomers reestablish their lives in the U.S. Now directed by Clinical Volunteer Jordan Shaughnessy, the project provides material financial support and case management services to refugee and immigrant clients for up to 12 months. Clients receive a loan of $50 per month, empowering them to make private and independent purchasing decisions regarding their basic needs and to access community resources. They are expected to repay the loan once they have legal status and can work legally in the U.S. As one client says, “You’re helping me now and I promise to help you and this program one day.”

Who, exactly, does the helping at CLSACC? Aside from paid staff, pro-bono lawyers, counseling professionals and other volunteers (students, paralegals, translators) generously donated more than 14,000 hours of services last year, valued at well over a half-million dollars.

CLSACC’s annual budget includes funding from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which provides approximately 12 percent ($125,000) of its annual operating expenses, with the remaining 88 percent coming from grants, contracts, foundations and individual donors.

Established in 1968 by Dr. Joseph Brenner, a psychiatrist at M.I.T., to provide free medical care to people unable to access existing medical services, the organization was originally known as Cambridgeport Medical Clinic. In June 1970, recognizing the additional unmet needs of their patients, Dr. Brenner and his colleagues launched the Cambridgeport Problem Center (CPC), which saw teams comprised of volunteer legal and mental health professionals and laypeople assist patients in finding ways to solve problems and make better life choices. Medical services were suspended in 1973 and CPC eventually grew into Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, following the clinic’s model of using volunteer professionals to provide services to the community’s most vulnerable residents.

CLSACC’s leadership reflects the interdisciplinary nature of its work. Rohani earned a master’s in social work from Boston University and has worked with survivors of trauma, torture, gender-based violence and human trafficking for 17 years. Deputy Director John Froio previously worked as CLSACC’s Assistant Legal Director and Housing and Disability Attorney.

CLSACC’s has been headquartered in Central Square since the late 1970s, in tightly packed space donated by the City of Cambridge with additional space rented from the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee. Recently, the Board of Directors approved the lease of a larger professional office space, located within blocks of the Lechmere T stop and the Middlesex Probate and Family Court, beginning July 1. The new location will allow the organization to better accommodate the organization’s expanding staff and volunteer corps. Most importantly, it will provide a more comfortable setting for CLSACC’s clients and their families.

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John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.