Brett Dignam Launches Federal Prisoners’ Rights Clinic

Fall 2010

This fall, Brett Dignam, a forceful advocate for prisoners’ rights, brings her two decades of experience in the field to Columbia Law School, where she has launched a new clinical program.

Dignam’s new clinic will allow students to provide legal assistance to prisoners
held in federal incarceration facilities, as well as to state prisoners litigating in federal court.

Dignam, who once served as an attorney in the Justice Department and as a clerk to Judge William H. Orrick of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, has participated in more than 30 federal and state cases in the area of prisoners’ rights. Her work has involved issues ranging from inadequate housing conditions and poor medical care to immigration and civil rights violations.

The curriculum for the new clinic will be determined largely by the cases that prisoners decide to pursue, Dignam notes, but even without a firm docket in place, student interest has soared since she led an information session about the clinic in early spring. “The demand has been gratifying-slash-overwhelming,” Dignam says, adding that she received 40 student applications for eight available slots.

Given Dignam’s plans for the clinic, those students can count on having ample opportunity to assist affected clients. Over the past several years, Dignam has worked with inmates at the all-female Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. Her efforts there have included handling federal tort claims, religious rights cases, and a variety of medical claims, as well as investigating allegations of sexual assault. Dignam intends to continue that work with her students at the Law School. She also hopes to partner with the Prisoners Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society of New York, a relationship that will allow students to gain experience interviewing prospective clients. In addition, Dignam will explore legal issues at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan.