Bringing HOPE to Prison Inmates: Pro Bono Student Program Builds Legal Writing Skills

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Photo of a prison cell

Breaking down barriers to legal services is one of the goals of Miami Law's HOPE Public Interest Resource Center. Through a new partnership with Exchange for Change, a nonprofit serving the incarcerated, Miami Law students are using their writing, teaching, and counseling skills to support inmates at Dade Correctional Institution.

"This is an ongoing program that pairs our law students with 'inside' students who can participate in educational programs," said Marni Lennon, Assistant Dean for Public Interest & Pro Bono and Director of HOPE (Helping Others Through Pro Bono Efforts), which features more than 25 outreach and advocacy projects.

Lennon, who has long had a passion for criminal justice reform, reached out to Exchange for Change in 2017 to explore the potential for a pro bono partnership program. She and Sara Baez, HOPE's Assistant Director for Advocacy and Pro Bono, met with the law clerks inside Dade Correctional Institution. "The law clerks help inmates with motions and appeals, and have access to a limited law library at the institution," she said. "We saw that they needed resources, including books and forms, but also training on legal research and writing, and more information on post-conviction pathways. That led to a series of one-day sessions with guest speakers from our faculty."

Providing Educational Programming

Kathie Klarreich, the Executive Director of Exchange for Change, welcomed the opportunity to provide inmates with more educational programming. The nonprofit teaches writing skills in prisons and runs letter exchanges between incarcerated students and writers studying on the outside. "By preparing inmates for their reentry into the outside community and preparing that community for their return, we provide vision and understanding on both sides of the fence," she said.

Klarreich added that the support from Miami Law is helping to fill a void in learning experiences for inmates. "The only programs Dade Correctional Institution offers are concentrated on more basic subjects, like GED (general education diploma) classes," she said. "We want to give inmates who already have a high school diploma something extra."

That includes law clerks, who provide services to other inmates who can't afford a lawyer or lack the knowledge to file motions and appeals. "We recognized that the Miami Law partnership could help them do their job better, improving their writing and communication skills."

Bringing Classes to Inmates

In Spring 2018, HOPE partnered with Exchange for Change to conduct a six-session program on legal research and writing for inside students at DCI. Miami Law students like Sam Ludington led the course, "Pro Bono Skills: Legal Writing and Research," which was taught by Shara Kobetz Pelz, Professor of Legal Writing and Lecturer in Law. Approximately 18 "inside students" and 15 Miami Law students have taken part in each course.

"What stands out the most is the high level of motivation among the inside students," Pelz said. "Many of them are serving life sentences and have exhausted their appeals. However, they want to make a difference in the lives of their fellow inmates."

The program also introduces Miami Law students to a very different learning environment from an academic classroom. They receive training and must pass a background check before they are allowed to enter the correctional institution and participate in leading the course.

"Our Miami Law students are paired with the inside students in two-hour learning sessions, working toward a common goal," said Pelz. "At the end of the course, both groups present their work to their peers and instructors. I have been greatly impressed by the high quality of the inside student presentations. "

Pelz said the course includes writing motions to suppress or in opposition to suppression. "By the end of the course, our students understand the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments. It's not watered-down law school—it's exactly what I teach second-semester students here."

Inside student Emmett Cox said he learned a great deal from the program. "The legal writing class has given me the tools to identify the nature of a case, the parties, the nature of preparing a motion, how to request relief, the theme of the motion, and the primary points of law to justify this relief," he said.

Pelz adds that strong writing skills are essential to being an effective advocate inside or outside a correctional institution. "You have to be clear and succinct, and be sure your work product is free of errors," she said. "Good writing will clarify your thinking and make you a better lawyer."

Lennon notes that the benefits of the Exchange for Change partnership extend beyond learning legal writing skills. "It really matters for an inside student when someone pays attention, asks for their opinions, and values their responses," she said. "It's very different from being just a number."

Pelz said the inside students at DCI are deeply appreciative of the program.

As Errol Jackson said, "I have been a law clerk for 15 years, but had never been taught how the court system actually works. My eyes were truly opened to the drafting of legal motions. I can now effectively draft legal motions for myself and others. Thank you, Miami Law, for taking time for the incarcerated."

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