The Prisoners and Families Clinic operates at the intersection of the criminal justice and family court/child welfare systems and engages in both education and advocacy. The clinic informs people in prison about their parental rights and responsibilities and the ways in which they can advocate effectively for themselves. The clinic also provides advocacy to people who have been released from prison, as well as their family members, to help them achieve reunification.
In the educational component, the Clinic works collaboratively with the Parenting Center of Bedford Hills, a women's prison. Students first observe a family law class taught as a semester long course by an inside facilitator to other incarcerated women. The students then work in groups to design, prepare and teach one of the classes later in the semester. The classes typically involve role-play simulations in which the students and women participate together. These classes are designed to provide preventive lawyering in order to help the women take the steps necessary to improve their chances of success in family court proceedings or to avoid legal problems altogether. Students may also have an opportunity to teach a similar class at a men's pre-release prison.
In the Spring 2010 semester, the Clinic will also collaborate with the Family Initiative of the Center for Appellate Litigation, a PILF grantee. Students will assist in expanding resource lists for families and developing the curriculum for workshops that will be provided to people who have recently been released from prison and their families. Students will also conduct these workshops jointly with the staff of the Family Initiative.
For the advocacy component, the students provide legal assistance to people who have been released from prison and/or their family members. In the Spring 2010 semester, some or all of the cases will be referred by the Family Initiative. The students may also provide research and counseling to staff at Bedford Hills who are assisting women with problems relating to their children.
To prepare for this work, students are educated through a process of classroom and experiential learning. In the early part of the semester, students are exposed to some of the rich literature about prisons and prison life and are provided with a background in the relevant substantive law. To develop the lawyering skills they will need to work with clients, students participate in intensive simulation exercises. Students also examine relevant issues of professional responsibility that arise in work with indigent clients who are involved in the criminal justice and family court/child welfare systems.