During my undergraduate studies at Santa Clara University, I worked with formerly incarcerated individuals at the Northern California Innocence Project. When I came to law school, I was passionate about discovering solutions for this typically underserved population. Through the Prisoner Civil Rights Mediation Clinic at McGeorge School of Law, I had the opportunity to work as a co-mediator — alongside federal judges — facilitating mediations between incarcerated individuals and the Attorney General, which represented the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Most cases related to harassment, inadequate medical care, or other circumstances constituting cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Through classroom simulations and facilitating mediation of our cases, we learned negotiation skills and the importance of a neutral, facilitative mediator. We also learned to filter through large case files and understand the civil negotiation process — invaluable skills I will carry into my career.
We interviewed the incarcerated plaintiffs in order to better understand their goals for mediation and to draft summary memoranda for the judge. These interviews were incredibly powerful; we got to hear the stories and goals of incarcerated individuals in their own words. For example, at the end of our first interview, our elderly plaintiff told us about her family and her life in prison. She shared how much she missed simple things, like seeing her niece grow or watching the sunset on her hometown beach.
Additionally, during our tour of Folsom Prison, we spent almost an hour in the prison law library, talking with men who were excited to talk about their online college classes or ask about legal research. I found myself wishing more members of the public had similar encounters. These experiences could help destigmatize and humanize this population, preventing the image of incarcerated people as one generalized group, all undeserving of basic human rights because of a mistake in their past.
The Clinic also afforded us the essential opportunity to reflect on access to justice, as well as what justice means to us. Professor Ederlina Co led seminar discussions challenging us to see both sides of these complex issues. We were reminded how subjective and personal justice can be, and that, as attorneys our job is to listen to our clients’ needs and goals to obtain whatever justice looks like for them. For example, sometimes when we thought justice warranted a large monetary award, justice for the plaintiff was as simple as the return of pizza money or a wrongfully confiscated poster.
I came to law school because I wanted to help facilitate access to justice; the Clinic reminded me that doing so effectively requires humility, empathy, and active listening. I witnessed the plaintiffs’ desires to share their stories and learned the value of a sympathetic yet impartial mediator who gives parties the opportunity to be heard. I was reminded, as author Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow (a book we read as a class) that, “rather than shaming and condemning an already deeply stigmatized group, we, collectively can embrace them — not necessarily their behavior, but them — their humanness.”
By Madison Sykes, a third-year student at McGeorge School of Law.