Legal Advice--For Free

Students and Prisons

While most students at the Law School prosecute mock trials in moot court. Greg Bialecki steps out of the classroom to learn about the real-world aspects of law.

But Bialecki's clients can't come to his office in Austin Hall. He goes to them--behind bans in Massachusetts state prisons.

Bialecki is a student attorney in the Law School's Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), which provides free counsel to convicted criminals serving time in the state's correctional institutions. Through the project, student attorneys offer a sole source of legal aid to many inmates faced with disciplinary action or possible loss of parole.

Established in 1970, the program now claims more than 20 active members who practice under the supervision of consulting attorney Martin Gideonse, a Cambridge criminal defense lawyer.

Gideonse oversees a training program that takes the uninitiated students from their casebook academics to the courtroom floor. Once cleared by the Law School Dean's office, program participants accompany veteran student attorneys on visits with clients. After observing a series of disciplinary bearings, they step into the role of defense attorney representing prisoners charged with infractions.

You always have some doubts about sending students into action as lawyers," says Gideonse. The object is to structure things so the risks don't materialize."

While state law entitles prisoners to legal counsel in institutional proceedings, the state is not required to provide attorneys as in criminal trials. Unable to pay for professional lawyers on their own prisoners at MCI-Concord. Norfolk, Framingham, and Walpole prisons call the program collect to request its assistance.

"Prisoners know about us through word of mouth." Bialecki says. "At Concord, the officers will almost always ask them if they want PLAP attorneys."

After mailing inmates information on prison trial procedures, the student attorneys pass through security checks to met with their clients, who have been convicted of crimes that range from robbery and burglary to murder and rape.

Students say they feel secure in dealing with their clients. "I've never heard of anyone feeling threatened or afraid," says project member Harry V. Rouse.

Gideonse adds that relations between students and prisoners have been smooth and professional, with the exception of a few instances where female participants encountered sexual tensions.

"A lot of the prisoners don't have much if any human contact outside the institution." Bialecki says. "For a lot of them, just the fact that there's someone who really cares and wants to make an effort makes a big difference.

Project attorneys spend about a week gathering information and planning arguments in preparation for each case.

The majority of cases handled by the program involve action against inmates for alleged offences. Program attorneys also represent clients before parole boards considering returning them to prison because of parole violations.

Charges in the disciplinary cases range from fighting and disobeying guards' commands to spitting and cursing, and punishment can be as severe as extended solitary confinement Bialecki says that the often trivial charges can be filed by guards on arbitrary grounds.

"When an officer writes a ticket, it's usually because a guard's pissed off. It's another way for the system to control the inmates," he says.

Program participants state that their purpose is to even the odds and see that the accused get a fair hearing.

When the inmate appears before the prison disciplinary board, his law student counsel presents his side of the story and cross-examines the accusing officer in an informal trial proceeding.

Gideonse says that the students win decisions in less than hall of the more than 400 cases they handle annually, but he dismisses focusing strictly on outcomes as a valid measure of the program's effectiveness. He says that the students benefit their clients by getting charges and punishments reduced.

William J. Tucker, institutional parole officer at MCI Concord, agrees that the project's lawyers are frequently successful in securing favorable action "A law student who can make a persuasive argument can make a difference between a delayed release and a swift release," he says.

"They make it possible for the system to work better," he adds, noting that the students provide neutral third party counsel where parole officials serve as both judge and prosecution.

Tucker says that some of the attorneys have been unqualified or ineffective, but he says that overall the program serves the inmates and the institution well.

The services are particularly valuable to inmates, says program participant Arthur A. Baer, because the students are able to collect outside information and testimony that their incarcerated clients would otherwise be without.

Project participants like Baer says that they too gain from their work in the prisons, which adds a clinical dimension to their legal education. "I think they'll be head and shoulders above their colleagues who haven't done anything like this," says Gideonse, himself a graduate of the Law School.

The program's $40,000 budget for office staff and Gideonse's salary is wholly funded by the Law School, which has tried to encourage students to pursue work in public interest law. Five students receive $250 weekly salaries to run the project during the summer, but with private law firms paying as much as $800. Bialecki says. "People who work here are doing it at a personal sacrifice."

Since its inception, the program has grown and shifted its focus. Originally, the student attorneys assisted defendants in their efforts to win appeals. But when a series of court rulings established in mates' right to counsel in institutional procedings, the program moved to aid in the prisons.

Today, the program has the added capability to delend clients in court. Gideonse says Last spring. Gideonse and student attorneys argued the federal district court case of a client placed in solitary confinement and transferred to a maximum security facility for allegedly harassing his social worker.

The prisoner's alleged offense Gideonse says was that he gave the social worker a sampling of poetry he had written, which was perceived as a sexual advance.

The attorneys from the program won a permanent injunction blocking disciplinary action against the prisoner.

In recent years, the program has also achieved some success in efforts to win sentence commutations for convicted murderers serving life sentences Working through a slow and intricate state bureaucracy, student attorneys petition the Governor to grant these inmates eligibility for parole.

"There really are extraordinary cases where people have an outstanding record that shows they've changed and there's no point in keeping them in prison any longer." Bialecki says Gideonse does note, however that he sometimes has reservations about pushing for inmates release if their institutionalization has left them ill-equipped to function independently in the outside world.