New York, January 6, 2014—Angela was 17-years-old when Columbia Law School students Ogechi Nzewi ’14 and Antonieta Pimienta ’14 began representing her in the fall of 2012 as part of their work in the Prisoners and Families Clinic directed by Professor Philip M. Genty.
A junior in high school at the time, she had been living with her legal guardian—a family friend—since she was 2-years-old, shortly after her mother was imprisoned on a 25-year sentence for robbery and assault. But when the guardian was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2012, Angela* faced the possibility of losing the only home she’d ever known, a New York City Housing Authority apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan.
Angela’s case is emblematic of what Genty and other prisoners’ rights advocates call the “collateral consequences” of mass incarceration. The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. In the last three decades, the number of people behind bars has increased by 500 percent to 2.2 million. For each of those prisoners, countless family members—suddenly single parents or “orphan” children—are left to struggle for their basic needs in society.
Genty, the Everett B. Birch Innovative Teaching Clinical Professor in Professional Responsibility, has added collateral consequences cases to the work of his clinical students, who also teach family law to incarcerated mothers at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Angela was one of the clinic’s first collateral consequences clients.
Working with Genty, Nzewi and Pimienta tried to preemptively secure a lease for Angela to remain in her apartment. But Angela’s guardian died in December 2012 and “everything came to a head” before they could, Genty said. At an initial meeting in January 2013, the Housing Authority determined Angela was not eligible for her own lease based on its rules and regulations, which are designed to ensure public housing is available for those who need it.
First, because Angela was a minor, she was not legally able to sign a lease. Second, the Housing Authority wasn’t sure whether Angela qualified as a legal relative of her guardian, or, if she did, whether she met the necessary income requirements to take over the rent. Finally—and most complicated—Nzewi and Pimienta needed to prove Angela had been living in the apartment continuously for a year preceding her guardian’s death. Because of the guardian’s illness, Angela had spent some time living out of state with relatives.
With Genty’s help, the tenacious students met each challenge head on, extending their work into the spring although the clinic operates in the fall. They coordinated with the guardian’s distraught daughters to recover copies of the lease, which included Angela’s name; tracked down school records showing that official papers and phone calls had gone to the apartment; and obtained court documents proving the guardian had been awarded legal custody of Angela immediately after her mother’s incarceration.
Because of the circumstances surrounding the case, “even the most basic task presented obstacles,” Pimienta said. But she and Nzewi had no trouble staying focused. On one of their trips to Bedford Hills, they had seen a picture of a much younger Angela embracing her mother during a supervised visitation at the prison.
“Having the context of her early life helped keep us motivated,” Nzewi said. “She was basically orphaned by the incarceration system.”
Eventually, the pair’s effort paid off. In October 2013, before a final hearing in the case could be set, the Housing Authority reviewed the record and reversed its own decision—just weeks after Angela started her senior year and celebrated her 18th birthday. Today, Angela is living independently and hopes to enroll in college after she graduates.
“Equity was on our side,” Nzewi said recently.
Genty said it was who was on Angela’s side that mattered.
“The students mastered the necessary law,” he said. “But the case really turned on the facts, and I don’t think that Angela could have marshaled all of the necessary documents on her own. The students enabled Angela to piece together the history of her own life.”
Genty said he would like the clinic to take on more cases like Angela’s in the future although he cautioned that there is no such thing as a typical collateral consequences case. The ramifications of having an incarcerated relative are myriad and move rapidly across neat legal practice areas, he said.
That’s something Nzewi and Pimienta saw firsthand.
“Taking on Angela’s case provided really great insight into how much incarceration can impact every aspect of people’s lives and how vulnerable people are,” Nzewi said.
Nzewi and Pimienta, who will be starting as associates next year at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates, respectively, plan to incorporate pro bono work in their careers, including handling cases for prisoners and their families.
“The issues of people in prison really do extend beyond the prison walls,” Pimienta said.
*Angela is a pseudonym.