Dec. 13, 2011Vol. 42, Issue 3

At Work, in Jail

Political science professor Sally Parker (top right) with CLIC’s County Jail Law Project legal research assistants (clockwise from Parker) Claudia Lemire, Leah Peters, Jessica Hatch, Chance Hansen, and Martin Tellez. Through the CJLP, Chico students help the jail meet the constitutional requirement that inmates have “access to justice,” including access to legal information that could help them with their cases. The legal research assistants work in a tiny repurposed interview room with a wire door under the watchful eye of a correctional officer. The room contains a computer and several shelves of reference books.

A legal research assistant’s work begins with request forms filed in advance by inmates looking for specific information. Requests most often include information about writs for habeas corpus, the Three Strikes Law, sentencing issues, and jail conditions. If the request is as simple as a copy of a particular case, the student researches it online and provides a copy via the jail mail system. If necessary, additional research is handled by CJLP interns back at the CLIC office.

Inmates who need  general information—or don’t know exactly what they need—get confidential time with a student librarian. They sit on the other side of the wire library door and have access to a computer to view the research results.

While students are not authorized to act as legal counsel, they must have a comprehensive knowledge of the law to help inmates access information relevant to their cases. “They can only provide the inmate with information that has been requested and try to steer them towards the type of information they need,” says Parker. “For example, an inmate might say, ‘I want everything you have on robbery.’ But we could send them many books on that. The students find out, ‘What specifically about robbery? What you are being charged with?’ And then they target their research to be most useful.”

Political science professor Sally Parker (top right) with CLIC’s County Jail Law Project legal research assistants (clockwise from Parker) Claudia Lemire, Leah Peters, Jessica Hatch, Chance Hansen, and Martin Tellez. When the student and inmate have together accessed the right documents, the actual paper copies are sent through the mail. “We see the inmate face to face, but everything has to go through the jail mail system,” says Parker. “We don’t bypass any of the jail safety regulations.” The information is confidential, but the jail checks the mail for contraband and things like staples.

This is a fairly rare service, says Parker. Many jails have nothing but a kiosk with access to search programs like LexisNexis—which is very difficult for inmates without training and legal knowledge to use. “Our legal research assistants have been trained do those searches,” she says. “They know all the websites to search to get the law, statutes, and case law. They can help look up the inmates’ case information to see when they are supposed to appear again and for what. They can help in a much more meaningful way.”

closeup of jail libraryLegal research assistant Chance Hansen, a political science major who is also getting a paralegal certificate, says that he has learned more about criminal and civil law than he ever could have in the classroom—something he believes will help him immeasurably in law school or a career as a paralegal. He says he has also been exposed to unexpected nuances of the legal process: “Personally, I have met many inmates who I believe are not treated justly by the justice system, and it influences my beliefs of what the law should do.” 

Through October of this year, the legal research assistants and CJLP interns answered 6,000 requests for legal information from inmates. “The inmates depend on it,” says Parker. And the county is committed to it—the students work under a contract between Butte County and the Research Foundation and are paid $8.50 an hour. 

Jessica Hatch, who will graduate in spring with a criminal justice degree and a paralegal certificate, began working as a CLIC intern on the CJLP in 2010. She became a legal research assistant last May and is now a co-director of CJLP. “I’ve gained hands-on experience with aspects of the criminal justice system that I have not been able to grasp in class,” she says. “It has developed my passion for the law. I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my criminal justice degree. Being a legal research assistant and a part of CLIC has opened my eyes to the idea of law school.”

doorway to library jailFor the most part, students enjoy working with inmates and develop a good rapport with them, says Parker, who also gets thank you’s “all the time” from the jail inmates. Hansen agrees, saying, “I will probably always remember many inmates who I assisted, both their stories of their experiences in the justice system and how they appreciate the help that the law library provides.”

The most difficult thing for the legal research assistants is not working with the jail population itself, rather the physical fact of working in the jail itself—in a tiny room, with no windows, continually watched, having to call an escort to use the bathroom. “Everything is dependent on a guard doing something for you, so you have to have a lot of patience,” she says.

Hatch says that more than her career plans have changed though this experience: “Having this job has made me way less judgmental. It’s really easy for individuals to judge people who are incarcerated, but in this job, we can’t. We deal with individuals from drug possession to murderers, and we treat them with the same respect and openness for help.”

“I enjoy what I’m doing, and I really enjoy meeting the people that I do,” she adds. 

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications