Attending law school from behind prison bars

Innovative new initiative could become national model

It’s been over a week since Maureen Onyelobi and Jeffery L. Young started their pursuit of a Juris Doctorate degree from Mitchell Hamline School of Law. These two are just like the other law students at their school—they took their LSAT exam, applied to school, and are attending their classes. The only difference is, Onyelobi and Young are both currently in state prisons. 

The pair started classes on Monday, August 15 while serving their sentences at prisons in Shakopee and Stillwater respectively. Their enrollment in the law school is made possible by the law school’s relationship with All Square, a nonprofit social enterprise that invests in people impacted by the criminal justice system. 

The partnership between the two was born out of an effort to provide civil legal services for individuals returning home from prison, but in the spring of 2021, they decided to extend their work toward educating incarcerated individuals in the law. 

This initiative, entitled the Prison-to-Law Pipeline, is organized through All Square’s subsidiary, the Legal Revolution, which was co-founded by Elizer Darris, Emily Hunt Turner and John Goeppinger. The pipeline is just one phase of a two-part initiative that will empower incarcerated individuals through educating them about the law. 

Currently, the Legal Revolution supports five students who are incarcerated in Shakopee earning their paralegal degrees at North Hennepin Community College. Phase two is titled “the firm” whereby those who earn their degrees can then become practitioners of the law and assist others through the legal process.

The program takes shape

Although the relationship between All Square and Mitchell Hamline had been going on for years and there had been some thoughts about this program in the past, it wasn’t until the disruption of COVID that everyone realized that law students didn’t necessarily have to be in the classroom. 

In the spring of 2020, Goeppinger was studying at the University of Minnesota law school, where he had to upend his classroom education and transition to a virtual one. “We went into the beginnings of COVID, and that forced a migration to online learning,” Goeppinger said. “We were remote Zooming into all our classes.”

While attending courses through Zoom and digitally corresponding with classmates and professors, Goeppinger realized that individuals who were incarcerated didn’t have to wait until their sentences were up to receive a legal education. 

Mitchell Hamline Law School Dean Anthony Niedwiecki had the same revelation from the pandemic. “During COVID when all of the law schools were online, the idea came up saying, ‘I wonder if we can take what we’re learning here through COVID and apply it toward helping those that are currently incarcerated?’” Niedwiecki recalled. 

To better understand the feasibility of this program for individuals behind bars, Niedwiecki reached out to Commissioner Paul Schnell of the Department of Corrections. He discussed the online courses that students could take, but the commissioner stated that there could be a way to include incarcerated students in the classroom.

“Talking through this, the commissioner thought it would be a better idea if they could actually Zoom in to the on-campus classes as opposed to doing most of their work online,” Niedwiecki said.

The planning to put together the first cohort began back in the spring of 2021, and over several months the law school, All Square, and the state’s correctional department created a system that would help curate an engaging learning experience for students in prison. 

The process for students to apply to law school was similar to what most students go through. Dean Niedwiecki, after much discussion, had gotten support from the American Bar Association to be able to administer the LSAT exam to incarcerated individuals. 

Afterward, students applied and had their applications reviewed by the law school’s faculty committee. Much of the recruitment came from All Square, whose relationship with individuals like Onyelobi helped identify applicants who had a passion and interest in the law. 

Onyelobi received her acceptance letter on June 9 and had it hand delivered by both Goeppinger and Niedwiecki. 

New ‘jailhouse lawyers’

Kevin Reese understands the importance of investing in someone while they’re in prison. It was only three years ago that he was serving time himself. After 14 years, Reese regained his freedom and would go on to launch Until We Are All Free, an organization dedicated to supporting incarcerated individuals through the criminal justice system and their reentry into society.

“While I was in prison, I was invested in by the community,” Reese said. “I was able to start my career path for myself while I was in prison.” 

Reese points to Darris as an example of what legal education can do for someone. Darris was serving a life sentence in state prison, but through the guidance and knowledge of older inmates whose years of incarceration led them to learn about the legal system, Darris learned that he was able to fight for his freedom.

 He took his case to the State Supreme Court and won his freedom in 2016, having his life sentence overturned. 

“It was through that education and those mentors that he was able to develop his own pro se argument that his attorney adopted and was the argument that the Supreme Court accepted to release him from his life sentence,” Goeppinger said.

“We saw the necessity of what legal education can do for people who are currently incarcerated, but at the same time what we realized was that those generations that Eli had been able to grow up under were dying out or aging out.” 

This lack of “jailhouse lawyers” is an example of the lack of knowledge individuals have as they go through the legal system. “Part of incarceration is incarcerated information. You can want to study or know more about a thing, but in the prison environment we’re not privy to that,” Reese said. “We live in an information age. They’re still in the dark ages.”

For those going through reentry after serving their sentences, there are many legal and financial pitfalls that may risk re-imprisonment. The law school has been operating a clinic for both currently incarcerated individuals and those who were recently released to discuss things such as expungement, custody issues, and rental disputes. 

The pipeline will help create more lawyers who are educated on these subjects to help those still in the system find their way out. “We come from a community where that language was not written for us,” Reese said. “The law feels so inaccessible to people. When we get into courtrooms or legal situations we go directly into the belly of the beast.” 

Recruiting candidates

Currently, the ABA requires that a licensed attorney supervise the work that any of these incarcerated students might engage in once they receive their degrees. Part of the bar exam evaluates the lawyer’s background for any blemishes on their record to evaluate their character.

“The character and fitness portion does a deep dive on your entire life history, so if you had too many DUIs or have too much credit card debt, these can all be exclusionary factors for letting you sit for the bar and attaining your legal license,” Goeppinger said. 

As he and his team at the Legal Revolution work to change these restrictions to be more inclusive of students like Onyelobi, they’re preparing to have a place of employment for her once she’s graduated. 

“It’s first and foremost to figure out how to employ these individuals, and second, to take on cases and matters that are really specific to these communities.”

Although Dean Niedwiecki shared his excitement that Mitchell Hamline was the first law school in the country to do this, he hopes that it’s not the last. After announcing the program, he received an outpouring of support from colleagues in academia and the legal field. 

“I think out of anything that I’ve done in my career, this has gotten the most positive response,” he said. “There are so many people out in the world that really do want to do something different.”

In the next five years, Mitchell Hamline will accept two students a year into their program from state prisons like Shakopee and Stillwater. The JD program for incarcerated individuals is four years long as students are on a part-time schedule. 

“We’ve got five years of this particular agreement with the ABA, and at that point, I think we can look and see if we want to expand it,” Niedwiecki said.  

“We’re already looking at different states and different law schools and how can we replicate this throughout the country. This isn’t just a Minnesota innovation. This is really a national innovation,” Goeppinger said.

To learn more about the Prison-to-Law Pipeline program, visit www.allsquarempls.com/legalrevolution.

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