Law Students Provide Legal Aid for Inmates

Second in a two-part series.

One day last year, Kevin Futch decided he wanted to circulate a petition denouncing a correctional officer at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, where he is an inmate. Futch thought the officer was giving the best cells in his cell-block primarily to white inmates.

Before he ever got around to it, though, he learned from another inmate--known as the "jailhouse lawyer," that he could get in trouble for distributing such a petition. So he abandoned the plan. But during a search of his cell in September, a guard found the aborted petition--and Futch was sentenced to 15 days in isolation under a rule that prohibits "participating in or encouraging a riot, work stoppage, hostage taking, or unauthorized group demonstration."

Futch turned for help to a group of Harvard Law School students. This fall they succeeded in getting the charge changed and the isolation days dropped, and they hope ultimately to get the entire incident erased from Futch's record.

Kevin Futch is one of about 800 Massachusetts prisoners who are helped annually by the Law School's Prison Legal Assistance Project. Generally, inmates hear about the project through the grapevine. One inmate, who is having difficulty getting visitation privileges because he has been charged with engaging in sexual activity in the visiting room, says he learned about PLAP when he first got to Walpole several years ago.

About 70 students, some of them undergraduates, give time to the project, which was founded in 1970 and gets funds for an office manager, supervising attorney, and other expenses from the Law School. Every month PLAP members represent about 25 indigent prison and jail inmates at disciplinary, classification, and parole-related hearings.

This semester, for the first time, students can get credit for doing PLAP work if they are enrolled in a new seminar in prison law being taught by Jay Pottenger, a visiting professor from Yale. "That's a real breakthrough for us," says third-year law student Tracy Thorleifson. "We've been working on getting a prison law course here since before my 1L year."

Inmates who were interviewed about PLAP for the most part had nothing but good things to say. One woman who is in prison on a larceny charge, who asked not to be named, said of PLAP that "it will help get things moving. Without these people here, I'd be sitting here no telling how long."

Futch's situation is special because, unlike most PLAP cases, which are handled within the prison by law students, his may be brought to court. On November 13, PLAP filed on his behalf in Norfolk Superior Court, and the state Department of Corrections filed a response December 27. PLAP will now either go to court or file a motion to have the judge decide the case in a summary judgement.

Futch's problem is going further than most because PLAP members believe it raises significant First Amendment issues about inmates' freedom of thought and expression. "My feeling is that prison administrators want total control. They're terrified of the written word," says Martin C. Gideons, PLAP's supervising attorney, who is the attorney of record for the Futch case.

Litigation gives PLAP "teeth," says Thorleifson, who coordinated much of the work that has gone into the Futch case. "I think it's important for PLAP to do litigation so that people can know that we can, particularly, the Department of Corrections," she says. Thorleifson says that talking "'till we're blue in the face" about prisoners' rights does no good. What counts is playing legal hardball.

How does PLAP decide which problems to litigate? Gideons says that cases which raise important issues such as the First Amendment and which don't involve complex factual matters are best. That's because one difficulty in talking with inmates is telling fact from fiction, says Katherine Kennedy '82, a third-year student who has been interested in prison work since she tutored at MCI-Deer Island as an undergraduate. Kennedy emphasizes the importance of weeding out the facts of the case throughout the entire process.

Going to prison is an intimidating experience at first for many "plappers," but most quickly get over their fears. "It's certainly not frightening to work with people who, at this point in their lives anyway, have no reason to hurt me and who want our help and a sympathetic ear," says Kennedy.

Sandra D. Grannum, also a third-year student, got involved with PLAP in October of her first year of law school because she wanted both clinical experience and the chance to do public service work. In the beginning, she wasn't scared of the inmates--"because I was on the prisoners' side"--but scared rather that she wasn't competent to help them."

She does see a great difference among the prisons and prefers MCI-Concord to MCI-Norfolk. There's a "constant cloud over Norfolk," Grannum says. Concord is the Massachusetts prison system's classification center, where officials determine whether prisoners should be given minimum, medium, or maximum security. From Concord, they are shipped to the appropriate prison. Because of Concord's largely transient population, it is known to be one of the more peaceful prisons in the state.

Even so, security is tight. And it's the entrance procedure, Kennedy says, that is the most intimidating.