photo of the Danbury Federal correctional institution.

Clinic students speak up for the voiceless

People incarcerated at Connecticut’s Danbury Federal Correctional Institution–a population at particular risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic–have found an advocate in the law school’s Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic. Clinic students are monitoring conditions at the prison, following the settlement of a class-action lawsuit in federal court.

Associate Professor Alexandra Harrington, who directs the clinic, helped bring that lawsuit when she was at Yale Law School before joining UB School of Law last fall. At UB, students from the COVID Law and Community Engagement Clinic, directed by Vanessa Glushefski ’14, are also assisting on aspects of the suit.

Under a settlement reached in July, the Bureau of Prisons committed to using guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify individuals incarcerated at Danbury who are vulnerable to serious illness because of the pandemic, and to give full consideration to requests for home confinement of medically vulnerable people. Class counsel filed a number of motions in the fall to enforce the settlement agreement because it appeared that those home confinement reviews were not proceeding in accordance with the standards set forth in the settlement agreement; “We think it’s important that people get the reviews to which they’re entitled,” Harrington says.

Separately, she says, the Federal Bureau of Prisons declared its intention to provide adequate medical care and increase protections against spread of the virus. Clinic students are holding the bureau to those promises, by communicating with clients about the current state of conditions and lobbying for improvements.

Alexandra Harrington.

Alexandra Harrington

Vanessa Glushefski.

Vanessa Glushefski

“What we have been finding is that there are really serious problems with the medical care people are receiving and the prison’s responsiveness to people complaining of COVID symptoms, as well as issues with screening and general precautions,” Harrington says. “We’ve drafted a number of letters to the government to identify our concerns in areas where we see that what’s happening at the facility doesn’t match up with what the facility said they were going to do.”

The class action suit sprang from what some saw as neglect of incarcerated people’s medical needs including cursory symptom checks, scant testing, and lack of care for sick people, as well as the slow pace of reviewing home confinement applications. Harrington says, “Under the settlement agreement, as the Bureau of Prisons reviews class members for home confinement, it is supposed to give substantial weight to individuals’ medical risks and balance those needs with public safety.”

As settlement enforcement continues, clinic students are focusing on broader questions of access to medical care. Harrington cites an inmate with diabetes who has lacked needed care for more than a year and is losing his eyesight as a result. Other inmates have been waiting to see outside oncologists or cardiologists for several months.

Working by email, students are gathering information from clients and their family members and looking at possible remedies. “The students are synthesizing and analyzing the messages we are receiving and figuring out how those fit within the context of the Bureau’s assurances about conditions at the prison,” Harrington says. “It takes communication and critical thinking to marshal the necessary facts so that you can successfully and cogently advocate for your clients and explain why we have serious concerns about what’s happening at the facility.”

Courtney Bow.

Courtney Bow '21

For Courtney Bow, a 3L student now in her second semester with the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic, the work has been continuous but engaging. She says a spreadsheet logging the students’ case notes is approaching 1,000 entries, reflecting a range of client complaints and concerns. On some days they receive 50 or more messages from Danbury clients on conditions alone.

“We have people complaining of COVID symptoms but they’re not getting tested. Testing in general has been a big conversation piece,” she says, “as well as how many people are in a unit or where people are being quarantined. People who are sick with COVID and should be quarantined are being put in the SHU (solitary confinement), and that’s not what it’s designed for.”

“Mostly we’re compiling a long list of information, and we try to prioritize what’s the most critical. No human should be living in these conditions, whether they’re criminals or not.”

It’s a different client than many lawyers represent, but Bow, who says she was drawn to criminal justice work from the start, finds a lot of humanity there.

“Obviously they have made a mistake,” she says. “But one of the biggest takeaways is that they are so kind. We have people who have stepped up to compile what others around them are saying, people who can’t write or who don’t speak English. Some people are giving us weekly updates about symptom checks, whether there’s hot water, letting us know whether those things have been fixed. They’re real people.”

The Danbury project is just one aspect of the work done by the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic. Students are also working on resentencing cases under New York State’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which allows judges to reduce survivors’ prison sentences. Some students are also working this semester with the Rochester Police Accountability Board, studying policy questions and procedural rules that may need reform.