Challenging the Consequences of Mass Incarceration Clinic
Challenging the Consequences of Mass Incarceration is a clinic that will focus on litigation in federal court and resolution of claims related to prisoners’ conditions of confinement. Students will visit clients in state and federal prisons where they will interview, counsel and develop strategies. In collaboration with non-profit organizations and small civil rights law firms and subject to the law student intern rules, clinic students will litigate issues identified by the clients.
Students will work with clients to develop materials clients can use to prepare internal prison administrative remedies and to file administrative claims, including claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act. These materials will be prepared for distribution and will provide the basis for “know your rights” power point presentations. Although the identification of cases will be done collaboratively with the clients, projects may include a federal habeas action on behalf of a state prisoner raising an actual innocence claim and a religious freedom claim on behalf of a federal prisoner. It is anticipated that claims related to medical care and mental health will become part of the clinic’s docket. An initiative to examine and supplement resources available to immigration detainees held in the New York area may also be part of the clinic’s work.
To prepare for this work, students will read and discuss writings about punishment theory, the history of American prisons and the substantive law governing prisoners’ rights. To develop the skills they will need to work with clients, students will participate in intensive simulated interview exercises. Other legal skills, including counseling, negotiation, oral argument, preparation of pleadings, briefs and other litigation related writing will be taught and acquired in the context of client representation. Students will be encouraged to raise, reflect on and discuss relevant issues of professional responsibility that arise in work with confined, indigent clients.
Professor Brett Dignam joined the Columbia Law School faculty in 2010. She came to Columbia from Yale Law School, where she led the Prison Legal Services, Complex Federal Litigation and Supreme Court Advocacy clinics.
An award-winning teacher, Professor Dignam has supervised students in a broad range of litigation matters and has designed and overseen workshops conducted by students for prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut on issues including immigration, sexual assault, and exhaustion under the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
She has participated in major litigation in over 30 federal and state cases in the area of prisoners' rights.
Before entering the legal academy, Professor Dignam served as a law clerk for the Honorable William H. Orrick, U.S. District Court in San Francisco, California, and then developed a prison litigation practice in both federal and state courts.
She also served as an attorney in the Criminal Appeals and Tax Enforcement Policy Section, Tax Division, in the Department of Justice, from 1990-92, where she handled criminal appeals in all federal courts of appeals; the cases involved motor fuel excise tax/organized crime task force, savings and loan task force and sentencing guidelines issues. She also assisted Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Bruton to form the Division Policy on issues ranging from money laundering to RICO.
Dignam has both a criminal and civil trial and appellate practice in both federal and state courts. She has participated in major litigation at both levels on behalf of prisoners and on tax matters, among other issues.
As an associate professor at Yale Law, Dignam taught and supervised students in Prison Legal Services, Poverty/HIV, Landlord/Tenant and Immigration clinics, guiding students through administrative hearings, state and federal trial and appellate courts on issues ranging from state habeas claims to violations of the Voting Rights Act.
Dignam received her J.D. from the University of Southern California, where she was student director of the USC Prison Law Project and chair of the Hale Moot Court Honors Program. She has a Master of Arts degree in theater from the University of California at Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College.