Student Voices: A Thursday at Pinal County Jail

The following blog post was written by Harvard Law student Joel Edman, who, along with classmate Paige Austin, volunteered with the Florence Project in January as part of their winter term.  Visit the website of the Harvard Law School Clinical/Pro Bono Programs here to read the full post and other pieces written by students.  Thank you to Joel and Paige for all of your hard work!

Student Voices: A Thursday at Pinal County Jail

Joel Edman writes about his work in Arizona jails and detention centers (image credit: Paige Austin)

Today’s dispatch comes from Joel Edman, a second-year student at Harvard Law School. Joel spent his winter term at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Florence, Arizona for an Independent Clinical. He is also a member of the student practice organizations Tenant Advocacy Project and Harvard Immigration Project, and is currently participating in the Child Advocacy Clinic for the spring term.

I saw the potential of the Florence Project‘s work one afternoon toward the end of J-term. It was Thursday, when the “Florence team” (as opposed to the “Eloy team”) goes to the Pinal County Jail for a know-your-rights presentation, a bond workshop, and one-on-one intakes. The real lesson – for me at least – from the day had nothing to do with the law. Instead, it was the presentation style of the legal assistant and soon-to-be law student who conducted the bond workshop that I will never forget:

The word “empower” gets thrown around a lot, but that’s the only way I can describe what she passionately tried to accomplish with those men that afternoon. We stand in a circle, fellow HLS student Paige Austin and I, plus about a dozen detainees in jumpsuits. The room is just starting to get cold – I learned quickly that jailhouse concrete, bricks, and restricted sunlight can make even the Arizona desert chilly. “Usted es su propio abogado” sets the tone for the talk. The legal assistant is upfront about the harsh reality facing many of these men, but at the same time offers encouragement. She is meticulous, not just covering legal rules and procedures, but also the practicalities of getting documents from family, how to address a letter to a judge, that those letters should be in English, how to use the internal mail system at the jail, etc. She answers dozens of questions, patiently and thoroughly. In short, if you manage to walk away from her presentation not knowing exactly how to maximize your chances of getting bond, you just weren’t paying attention. I left thinking, “now that’s how you lawyer to a detained population.” And it’s a good thing too, because for that vast majority of the people the Florence Project meets, those precious few minutes will be their only interaction with an attorney.

There are thousands of detainees housed in the rural towns of Florence and Eloy, Arizona, and only a handful of attorneys at the Florence Project. Yet, the Project has as its goal to provide quality legal information to every detainee, as well as more targeted services for a few who might be helped to get some form of relief. Most days of the week, attorneys from the Project go to the detention centers to give know-your-rights presentations to groups of detainees, ranging from about 20 to 60 people. They are scheduled to happen about a week before the detainees’ initial appearance before a judge and are designed to give the detainees a sense of what to expect. The presentations – entirely in Spanish – include a brief overview of potential forms of relief, so that the attorneys can identify detainees who might be eligible.

After the presentation, or during it if there are extra attorneys on hand, the attorneys do one-on-one intakes with anyone who 1) was previously identified as potentially being eligible for relief, 2) does not speak Spanish, or 3) simply wants to speak to an attorney. After watching a presentation on my second day at the Project and observing a few intakes, I began doing intakes myself. At first, I was just gathering relevant facts so that one of the attorneys could dispense legal advice, but by the end of the first week, I had a pretty good sense of what to say in most cases. Besides being an emotionally straining process, and a healthy test of my (somewhat rusty) Spanish, intakes were a great crash course in immigration law.

There is much more to tell, but I’ll end by saying that I was one hundred percent satisfied with my experience at the Florence Project. I could not imagine a better way to have spent those three weeks!

See blogs.law.harvard.edu/clinicalprobono/ for additional posts from the Harvard Law School Clinical/Pro Bono program.

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