Bringing Skills to the Incarcerated - Students Teach Legal Writing at Dade Correctional Institution

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Without a right to an attorney on many post-conviction relief matters, individuals who are currently incarcerated are left to advocate for themselves without any legal training. In order to equip them with the tools they need to present their strongest case, Miami Law brought a law school level legal writing course to Dade Correctional Institution (DCI) this fall. 

Led by Professor of Legal Writing Shara Kobetz Pelz, in partnership with the HOPE Public Interest Resource Center and Exchange for Change (E4C), a local non-profit that brings creative and other educational courses to prisons in South Florida, the course met over six sessions and focused on persuasive writing, legal reasoning, legal analysis, research and citations. 

More than fifteen Miami Law students helped Professor Pelz teach the eighteen “inside students” (people who are currently incarcerated) enrolled in the course. Guest speakers included Professor of Legal Writing Rachel Stabler and the Associate Director of the Law Library, Robin Schard, who shared their expertise. 

At the beginning of the course, the inside students were assigned to either represent the defendant or the government in drafting a motion to suppress or an opposition to a motion to suppress. Each week, they worked on a different part of the motion and the course culminated with oral arguments. Some of the inside students who were assigned to represent the government were naturally surprised, but being able to argue both sides of an issue makes any student a more persuasive writer. 

From the first session, it was clear that the course was going to be an incredibly moving experience for all participants. 

“When Exchange for Change started this partnership with HOPE I don't think any of us realized how powerful it was going to be,” said Kathie Klarreich, the Chair of E4C. “It wasn't just the high quality of instruction from Professor Pelz, but the exchange of ideas and connections made between the inside and outside students. Initially, the E4C students were worried about their ability to keep up with a college level course but once it started, the only complaint I ever heard was that the course was only one-semester long.” 

Feedback from Miami Law students was equally powerful as the course did much more than just teach practical skills. 

“One of the most valuable things about this program is its ability to shatter stereotypes through experiential learning,” said Angel Sanchez, a 2L who assisted in the course. “The idea of sitting alongside students serving life-sentences, without any guards, seems unsettling but only because of the stereotyped images that inform us. Once we go into DCI and begin working with the students, those stereotypes quickly fade away. The students in there are just as kind, funny, reserved, brilliant, quiet, talkative, and witty as any one of us. 

“Seeing my Miami Law classmates experience this for themselves was extremely important to me because my classmates know that I went to prison for gang-related shootings and served over 12 years in prison, but they often think of me as an exception in comparison to other prisoners. Until now.” Sanchez’s willingness to share his personal story throughout the course and the success he has had since being released from prison was an inspiration to all of the students, inside and out. 

Sanchez was not the only Miami Law student who found the experience to be impactful. 

“My time over the past semester at DCI has been one of the most rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to participate in,” said 3L Olivia Issertell. “Each class reminded me of a bigger picture: what it means to be in law school and the importance of sharing this information with those who need it most. I sincerely hope the program will continue because I know it has brought a lot of meaning and knowledge and inspiration for the inside students.” 

“I volunteered with DCI because I was excited to work in a different area of criminal justice. I will be forever moved by this experience and only wish to do more,” said 2L Cicely Hodges.

Hodges and Issertell will get their wish as HOPE continues its partnership with Professor Pelz, Miami Law students and E4C to put on another session of the course which began on February 1 with a new group and anticipates holding an advanced course the following year. 

To learn about future opportunities to participate in the program, please email umhope@law.miami.edu.