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.