Department, Correct Yourself

Young law students with the proper training are qualified to give legal advice to inmates

Every year, around 100 Harvard Law School students take time out of their schedules to volunteer as prison advocates in Massachusetts state prisons. The Prison Legal Assistance Program (PLAP) provides free legal representation for inmates in internal prison hearings on matters such as discipline violations and parole. For over 30 years this program has benefited inmates, who are often unaware of their legal rights, and law students who are given the chance to apply their legal studies to real world problems. While the program is widely acclaimed as a success, its viability was recently put in jeopardy when the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) decided to consider prohibiting all first-year and some second-year students from participation. These students make up the vast majority of PLAP participants and this decision will severely undermine the organization’s ability to provide this service.

The DOC contends that its review of their policy towards PLAP was prompted by a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rule that says only third-year law students can participate in legal advocacy groups. But lawyers who are familiar with PLAP argue that the Supreme Judicial Court rule does not apply to law students in the program who are providing legal advice on internal DOC matters and not appearing in court. Furthermore, the rule is not new, but PLAP has been working in the prison system for over 30 years without contention. It was only during a routine review 18 months ago that the DOC decided to “update their policy” and began deliberating over whether to apply the rule to Harvard Law School (HLS) and the PLAP program.

The DOC cites the lack of legal training as its main reason for barring first and second year law students from participation in the program. According to PLAP’s supervising lawyer John Fitzpatrick, this excuse is tenuous at best. “A lot of time and resources are invested in training before students go out and do their first hearing,” Fitzpatrick told The Crimson. Fitzpatrick helps to prepare new law students for participation in PLAP through one-on-one training; a mentoring program also connects young law students to more experienced program participants. Fitzpatrick noted that the DOC has provided no evidence that less-experienced law students give poor or inadequate counsel. And not only is the DOC’s objection misguided, it is also hypocritical given that the correction officers who preside over these prison hearings are not even required to have college degrees.

By not allowing HLS first-years to participate, the DOC will undermine PLAP’s ability to provide legal advocates for inmates—leaving the prisoners with no legal representation in these hearings. Given that these hearings can touch on controversial issues such as civil rights violations and assault charges, and considering the dubious nature of the policy change, it is possible that the DOC is using this new policy to silence prisoners and weaken their ability to assert their legal rights. While we can only hope this is not the case, no reasonable motivation for making the change at this time has been presented. In a fair and just society, inmates would always be able to receive counsel about their rights as prisoners. Whether first-year or third-year law students provide this advice makes little difference, a fact the DOC ought to internalize. Perhaps it will even compel the DOC to revert back to its old policy, keeping PLAP in business.