photo of inmate sitting with his hands on the table.

Access to Justice Hybrid Clinic provides legal assistance to inmates

In collaboration with the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County, the School of Law is pioneering a program to help incarcerated persons press their case in federal court – a first-in-the-nation initiative.

Students in the newly established Access to Justice Hybrid Clinic, under the direction of Vice Dean Bernadette Gargano, are already working on their first inmate case. The pilot program in the Western District of New York, which stretches from Buffalo to Rochester and is supported by the volunteer work of dozens of alumni, will accept applications for help from inmates at two area federal prisons.

The clinic is an outgrowth of the law school’s successful Pro Se Assistance Program, which places students on help desks in the federal courthouses to assist litigants who are representing themselves in court. The new initiative, the Pro Se Assistance Program for Prisoners (PSAP), responds to a significant need in the federal courts: to deal fairly and efficiently with suits brought by inmates on such matters as use of excessive force and accommodation for disability or medical needs.

“Our students are going to learn a lot about the conditions in prison,” Gargano says. “Most of these cases will be civil rights cases, and student attorneys will see how procedure works in actual practice in federal court.”

In addition, she says, such work “makes you aware of the humanity of people who are separated and incarcerated, and of conditions that you might not understand otherwise. Our legal rules apply across the board, and if we’re serious about the rule of law, then we’re serious about applying it to all people.”

With continuing pandemic restrictions, and because prisoners have limited access to computers and telephones, Gargano says much of the work will be carried out through the mail. When the court receives an inmate petition that it determines is overly broad, saddled with extraneous material or otherwise not ready for trial, it will refer the plaintiff to the law school’s clinic. Student attorneys, under the direction of Gargano as well as volunteer community lawyers, will help the filer focus his or her claim and advise how to proceed – likely by way of an extended back-and-forth exchange of letters.

Hon. Frank P. Geraci, Jr., Chief United States District Judge, Western District of New York.

Hon. Frank P. Geraci, Jr., Chief United States District Judge, Western District of New York.

Chief Judge Frank Geraci Jr. says about one-third of the 3,000 civil cases the Western District handles each year are pro se cases, and most of those are brought by prisoners. He says many take a kitchen-sink approach – sometimes hundreds of pages, naming everyone from the jail superintendent to the governor as defendant. He has seen complaints written on toilet paper, napkins, even bottles.

“We review every complaint to see whether or not it states a proper cause of action and a proper defendant,” Geraci says. “We do screen out a lot of frivolous claims, but if there’s any merit to it, it has to proceed.”

“These are not lawyers, and they don’t know how to articulate an argument or even present the factual background, Geraci explains. “That all has to be sorted out. Our law clerks sift through the pleadings, and sometimes they’re voluminous. With this program, a lot of that can be done up front. The hope is that we can get better filings, reduce the caseload on our staff and assist the prisoners toward having a more successful resolution.”

The pilot program is referring inmate suits from two maximum-security prisons in Western New York: Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, east of Buffalo in Erie County, and Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, about 60 miles southeast of Rochester. Together, the two prisons can house about 2,500 inmates.

Gargano says they’re optimistic that the prisoner assistance program will become as successful as the law school’s current pro se assistance program with the 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 it gives these law students is incredible.”