Melanie Velez ’01

Conviction

Summer 2009

As an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), Melanie Velez ’01 spends her working hours defending the rights of convicted felons. And that doesn’t bother the married mother of one at all.

“We represent folks that society has given up on and others that society treats as invisible,” says Velez, who came to the Atlanta-based SCHR after three years at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York. “My job is to advocate for them, to fight for some measure of equal justice in a criminal justice system that is regularly used to target poor people, African-Americans, Latinos, and, increasingly, undocumented immigrants.”

Velez’s most recent victory garnered national attention and sent an Alabama sheriff to jail. The sheriff had been feeding his inmates on less than their $1.75-a-day food stipend and pocketing the difference—to the tune of more than $200,000. And it was all in accordance with an Alabama law that Velez calls “an archaic piece of legislation that certainly doesn’t promote good governance.”

Citing ample evidence of underfed prisoners, the judge in the case sided with Velez and the SCHR. He held that the sheriff’s actions were a blatant violation of past agreements that his prisoners be properly cared for. Velez and the SCHR are now working to change the law that allowed for mass inmate malnourishment. “It feels that what we do here is really necessary,” says Velez, “and there aren’t many others that do it.”