Bringing Justice to a Flawed System

We all have an obligation to treat other human beings as we want to be treated. Because someone made a mistake does not mean we should abandon them.

Committed UPLC staff members

Committed UPLC staff members

In a few wise words, Brian Nelson, Prisoner Civil Rights Coordinator at Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), paraphrases the mission of the organization’s Pro Bono Prisoners Civil Rights Project, one of the many outstanding programs you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign.

Hundreds of letters from inmates at surrounding prisons come across Brian’s desk every week, many of them relayed by partner law firms and organizations. Every letter gets read, and every inmate gets a response. Many letters contain descriptions of human rights violations, such as overlooking inmate violence or letting injuries go untreated.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy for inmates to report abuse.

Exhausting your grievances is an internal process that inmates go through before submitting a complaint, which Brian describes as a landmine where it is easy to trip up. If you miss a deadline or send a form to the wrong person, you may be barred from ever bringing a federal case. UPLC ensures that inmates understand and correctly complete the process by supplying them with critical information in their correspondence.

This stack is a typical day's worth of mail from prisoners.

A typical day’s worth of mail from prisoners

Another aspect of the Pro Bono Project involves what Brian calls matchmaking, as individual cases that have been screened to have potential merit are matched with attorneys seeking pro bono opportunities. In addition to placing these individual cases, Executive Director Alan Mills focuses on securing widespread relief from systemic abuses through class actions. UPLC currently has ten pending class actions against the Department of Corrections.

The largest of these cases involves the inadequacy of mental health services and medical care provided throughout the Illinois prison system. Diseases progress because they are ignored for months. Necessary surgeries fall through the cracks. One inmate suffered a broken jaw for more than half a year before receiving medical attention.

Moreover, according to UPLC, the Department of Corrections has been depriving the deaf and hard of hearing prisoners of necessary forms of assisted communication such as American Sign Language. This affects prisoners’ ability to access healthcare, religious services, disciplinary proceedings, and more. Together with Winston & Strawn LLP, Equip for Equality, and the National Association of the Deaf, UPLC filed a class action lawsuit; in the past week, a federal judge granted the case class action status.

Three UPLC staff members (Brian, Alan, and Mary) at a group meeting of prison activists

Three UPLC staff members (Brian, Alan, and Mary) at a group meeting of prison activists

In the past year, UPLC has added a Women’s Rights Project to address the issues that women in prison face. In one scenario, many diabetics were not getting their medications until 1 a.m. The organization was able to fix the issue through a class action. Because there are different medical issues that are specific to women, UPLC is working closely with other organizations to help address them.

Outreach and training are essential components of this project. Brian and Alan go out into the community to educate prisoners’ families, universities, and community groups about the prison system, prison conditions, and prisoner rights. They also hold training sessions for pro bono attorneys representing prisoners throughout Illinois. In addition to formal trainings, they regularly respond to calls and emails from attorneys seeking advice on their prisoner civil rights cases.

In Alan’s words, prisons are by design isolated from the community. Lawyers, however, have the right to enter and visit their clients, an access not easily available to the public. Because of this privileged access, he says, it is an obligation for lawyers to use that to report on the human rights violations that are going on inside. Through this Pro Bono Project, UPLC strives to bring some justice into a flawed system.