By Sam Feldman, J.D. ’16
I came to law school to work on the issues of mass incarceration and prisoners’ rights, inspired by advocates and activists I’d met who were challenging America’s own 21st-century gulag archipelago. I hadn’t actually done much research, though—something I’ve gotten better at over the course of law school—and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Harvard is one of the only law schools in the country whose students have the opportunity to go into prisons on a regular basis and represent prisoners at hearings. The Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), Harvard’s largest student practice organization, serves (a small fraction of) the Massachusetts state prisoners who desperately need representation and have nowhere else to turn.
PLAP’s bread and butter are disciplinary hearings, in which inmates accused of violating prison regulations have the opportunity to defend themselves before a hearing officer. Accused prisoners are allowed to retain counsel, but very few have the resources to do so. That’s where PLAP comes in: working in teams of one or two students supervised by an experienced attorney, we interview clients, submit discovery requests and motions, cross-examine corrections officers, and defend our clients against charges that can carry serious consequences, ranging from a loss of privileges to punitive solitary confinement.
I took my first disciplinary case in the fall of my 1L year and won a not guilty verdict for my client on a very serious charge, escape or attempted escape. Soon after I picked up a parole case together with a friend from my section, and the following year, while I served as PLAP’s Parole Hearing Coordinator, we represented our client before the Massachusetts Parole Board as he sought a chance to breathe free air after over 30 years in prison. This year I’ve served as one of PLAP’s two Executive Directors, and I’ve taken as many disciplinary cases as I can squeeze in between classes and other clinical work. My parole client was denied release last summer for reasons I believe are unlawful; before I graduate, I’ll have the opportunity to make that argument to the Suffolk Superior Court as part of our impact litigation practice.
Throughout my three years here, PLAP has been my home at the law school. I’ve appreciated our corner office on the 5th floor and the large community surrounding it, including about 200 students, two amazing supervising attorneys, and our dedicated administrative director. I’m also grateful for the chance to work in another type of space entirely: the state prisons in which thousands of people involuntarily reside, a few of whom I’ve had the privilege of getting to know. And I’ve been inspired anew by the motto hanging on the wall of our office: freedom for some, justice for all.