Law students offer legal advice to inmates
By Emily Beck
No tight clothes. No open-toed shoes or short skirts. Leave your driver’s license at the door, and you have to have a background check.
These are a few of the rules students working on the Inmate Legal Assistance Project have to follow when visiting inmates at a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
They spend most of their time answering letters inmates send seeking answers to various questions, like whether the length of their sentence was calculated correctly or how to file different claims.
But three times per semester, students in ILAP take the hour-and-20-minute trip to the penitentiary to meet with some of the writers of these letters.
“The hardest part about visiting the prison is the correctional officers,” said Sarah Doty, a second-year law student who works on ILAP. “Once you get back there, people are friendly. They’re so happy to have a visitor.”
ILAP is student-run at IU and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. It has about 60 active members, said student director Michelle Fox.
Students don’t give legal advice, but provide legal research assistance to inmates.
“Their access to research and materials is limited,” said Seth Lahn, ILAP’s supervising attorney and a law professor at IU. “We are remedying the lack of access they otherwise have.”
The letters students receive mostly fall under two categories: those that require quick answers, and those that demand pages of detailed analysis.
Fox said she sends out a lot of short letters with packets of information she thinks will be useful to the inmate. She’s written about 10 letters heavy with analysis.
“A lot of the time the inmates who send us letters don’t have the highest reading or writing ability,” she said, adding that many of the letters are handwritten and “convoluted.”
That’s why going to the facility and talking to inmates in person is helpful — it allows ILAP students to clarify what the inmates need, and it humanizes those inmates for the students.
Meeting with inmates can also remind students they’re real people, Lahn said.
“It’s easy to forget,” he said. “We lump them all together.”
Fox said the inmates are happy to have someone, such as these students, listening to their claims.
Sometimes inmates are dealing with issues concerning family law, or inheritance matters, or negligence claims – things they will have to face when they get out of prison.
Some letters are misdirected, Fox and Doty said. Inmates from outside ILAP’s jurisdiction, or area in which they can help, often send letters to ILAP.
Their contract states they can only work with those within the Terre Haute facility, though.
Still, students try to point letter writers in the right direction, Doty said.
She does ILAP because she wants to be a prosecutor, she said, and it’s important to know what that means.
“If you’re a prosecutor, you’re sending these people to these places, so you need to know ... what you’re subjecting people to,” she said.
Students are planning a trip for later this month to the penitentiary.