Hybrid Access to Justice Clinic provides legal assistance to detainees
The Law School is at the forefront of a program to help incarcerated people defend their cases in federal court – a unique initiative in the country – in collaboration with the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Association of Erie County Bar and the Monroe County Volunteer Legal Services Project.
The students of the new hybrid clinic for access to justice, under the direction of Vice-Dean Bernadette Gargano, are already working on their first prisoner case. The pilot program in the Western New York District, which runs from Buffalo to Rochester and is supported by the volunteer work of dozens of alumni, will accept requests for help from inmates at two federal prisons in the area.
The clinic is an outgrowth of the law school’s successful Pro Se Assistance Program, which places students in assistance desks in federal courthouses to assist self-represented litigants in court. The new initiative, the Pro Se Assistance Program for Prisoners (PSAP), addresses an important need of federal courts: to deal fairly and effectively with the lawsuits brought by inmates on issues such as the use of excessive force and accommodation to people with disabilities or medical needs. .
“Our students will learn a lot about the conditions of detention,” says Gargano. “Most of these cases will be civil rights cases, and the student lawyers will see how the process works in real practice in federal court.”
Plus, she says, such work “makes you aware of the humanity of separated and incarcerated people, and of conditions that you might not otherwise understand. Our legal rules apply at all levels, and if we are serious about the rule of law, then we are serious about applying it to everyone.
With the continued restrictions of the pandemic and because prisoners have limited access to computers and phones, Gargano says much of the work will be done by mail. When the court receives an inmate petition that it deems too broad, stuffed with foreign documents, or not ready for trial, it refers the complainant to the law school clinic. Student lawyers, under Gargano’s direction, as well as volunteer community lawyers, will help the declarant focus his request and direct him to the process, possibly through an extended exchange of letters.
Chief Justice Frank Geraci Jr. said about a third of the 3,000 civil cases the Western District deals with each year are court cases, and most of them are brought by prisoners. He says many take a kitchen sink approach – sometimes hundreds of pages, naming everyone from the prison warden to the governor as the accused. He has seen complaints written on toilet paper, towels, and even bottles.
“We review each complaint to see whether or not it sets out an appropriate cause of action and a suitable defendant,” Geraci said. “We eliminate a lot of frivolous claims, but if there is merit, it has to be done.
“They are not lawyers, and they don’t know how to articulate an argument or even present the factual context,” he explains. “This all needs to be sorted out. Our clerks sift through the pleadings, and sometimes they are bulky. With this program, a lot can be done right from the start. The hope is that we can get better cases, reduce the workload on our staff, and help prisoners reach a more successful resolution. “
The pilot returns combinations of inmates from two maximum security prisons in western New York State: Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, east of Buffalo in Erie County, and the ‘Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, approximately 60 miles southeast of Rochester. Together, the two prisons can house approximately 2,500 inmates.
Gargano says they are optimistic that the Prisoner Assistance Program will be as successful as the law school’s current pro se program with federal and family courts. “The program has been a great success, and our community partners and volunteer lawyers have been very supportive,” she says.
“The experience this gives these law students is incredible.