RWU law students to give pro bono help at women's prison

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While most students bask in the sunlight of Mexico or sequester themselves away from the world under their blankets during spring break, some Roger Williams University Law School students are looking to hone their craft locally.

Eight future lawyers will be taking their talents to the women’s prison at the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston to assist and inform inmates on civil issues, free of charge. RWU Associate Director of Pro Bono Programs Suzanne Harrington-Steppen said the Alternative Spring Break class sends students all over the country and the world, but the ACI visits are a bit different.

“It’s very different,” Harrington-Steppen said. “Most of the time we’re sending kids to a organization, but there’s no full-time staff attorney at the ACI. All of our pro bono efforts, we have to create those projects. The law school’s done a fair amount with the ACI over the years. We helped create binders about family law, housing law. It’s startling how little info inmates have in terms of their civil legal rights.”

The RWU Law School already had ties to the ACI before this ASB project. For the past five years, students have given help on civil issues at the ACI itself with the women’s prison serving as a “spinoff.”

The students will be accompanied by Paula Rosen, who is a former public defender, and Judy Fox. Harrington-Steppen said the students will not provide assistance with criminal matters, but any civil issues, such as how an inmate can receive a visit from their child, are up for consultation.

“The students find it really helpful,” Harrington-Steppen said. “It really is beyond eye-opening. It’s shocking, it’s startling. It really humanizes the folks who are in the ACI. Students aren't concerned with why they're in the ACI, but really with what their issues are. How can I get my child to visit me in prison? What happens to my personal property? There’s so little information and so little access that for our students it’s a transformative experience.”

Cranston isn’t the only location for the ASB assignment. There were 17 available destinations from which the students could choose, from New York City to Colorado and Haiti. Some are headed to visit public defenders in Massachusetts. There, they will work alongside attorneys for “full-time legal services.”

Harrington-Steppen said those students are “picked up for a week, given discrete tasks and [are] getting exposure.”

At the women’s prison, though, those prospective lawyers will actually get to work with clients and perform research to help them with their civil needs. The women’s prison has quickly soared to be one of the more popular selections when each student ranks which they would prefer.

“We have a fair number of students from Rhode Island, and many of them drive by the ACI but know nothing about it,” Harrington-Steppen said. “For many law students, it’s their first time in the prison and they understand how people end up in the prison. It’s a popular project for students who want to go into defense or prosecution.”

Students will get to work this week, starting Tuesday when they attend talks with a judge and two former inmates from the women’s prison. Once they gain that better understanding, they will lend a hand to any current inmates who may need assistance with civil issues.

Harrington-Steppen said that family matters are usually their paramount concern, but the students may also delve into small claims court cases.

The end goal for them is two-fold.

“The goals are to provide civil advice to the inmates and expose law students to the challenges of our criminal justice system,” Harrington-Steppen said.

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