By bringing legal education to prisons, the Prison Legal Education Project supports incarcerated individuals to lead their own successful legal advocacy.
The American legal system is complicated, and legal knowledge is often inaccessible to those who need it most.
The Prison Legal Education Project (PLEP), co-founded by a group of students including Dean of Students Felicia Lin L’08 and Miriam Nemeth L’09, seeks to bridge that gap by bringing legal education directly to people who are fighting to secure and defend their own rights and liberties while incarcerated.
After a brief hiatus during the height of the pandemic, PLEP is once again an active pro bono project and one of 20 student-led projects overseen by the Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC). One of the first law schools to implement a pro bono requirement, Penn Carey Law views pro bono as an integral, galvanizing aspect of legal education.
“Along with legal education, PLEP members have also engaged in post-conviction relief work in order to provide assistance to attorneys and organizations working directly with incarcerated folks,” said current PLEP board members Aleyah Hassan L’24 and Isabella Hernandez L’24.
“The criminal justice system often exploits vulnerabilities at every stage of the process, including through the incarceration of and through the limited potential for relief made available to convicted persons. We hope to serve these communities through providing research and resources, while also learning effective ways of approaching post-conviction litigation in practice.”
Recently, Lin and Nemeth reunited with two men with whom they worked while they were students in PLEP. After each serving approximately 28 years in prison, Marco Maldonado and Theophalis Wilson won their freedom in court.
Without question, Maldonado and Wilson acted as their own strongest legal advocates, persevering through years of self-advocacy that ultimately resulted in their sentences being overturned.
When Penn Carey Law students began working alongside them, Maldonado and Wilson noted that one of the most valuable aspects the students contributed was a direct communication line to legal education resources and even to law professors, who could answer nuanced questions Maldonado and Wilson had about specific laws and precedents that related to their legal issues.
“I think it’s really important to approach any client, whether they have a legal background or not, with this idea that we’re working together,” Maldonado said. “[A]lthough I got myself back in court, ultimately it was my work with the attorneys that represented me to bring me home that really made the process a lot smoother, to the point where I consider them friends.”
While they were incarcerated, Maldonado, Wilson, and a few others met in the law library and called themselves “The Firm.” They studied the law and acted as liaisons between the law students and others in the prison who needed legal help, ensuring that information continued to flow.
“In many ways, it felt like we went to law school with Theophalis and Marco. Instead of going to class at the Law School, our sessions were Saturday mornings inside SCI-Graterford. I learned so much with and from them both, and I never imagined I would one day be able to give them a tour of the school,” said Lin, reflecting on their post-release reunion.
“We’re all alumni of the University of Pennsylvania. That’s how we, The Firm, all feel,” Wilson said. “Hopefully we can get the rest of the guys out. Four of us are home now … but we have a couple more members there, and they go to court soon.”
Presenting one’s legal arguments effectively can be just as important as developing the arguments themselves.
Maldonado, who successfully litigated both his state and federal cases pro se, expressed that the legal writing training the Penn Carey Law students shared was extremely helpful to him as he prepared his arguments.
“One thing that definitely resonated with me and that I carried with me from those classes on forward to litigating my own release was CREAC,” Maldonado said. “How to structure arguments and do legal research – honing those two skills while keeping in mind what we learned.”
Wilson shared this sentiment and also noted that, for him, he found value in learning the philosophy behind the law and how different laws worked together.
Wilson, who was sentenced to life without parole at 17 years old, was granted a re-sentencing hearing after the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, holding that life without parole sentences are unconstitutional for people under the age of 18. During these proceedings, Wilson convinced his lawyer to not only look at the sentencing but also file an innocence claim.
After reviewing over 40,000 documents, the court found issues of prosecutorial misconduct, Brady violations, false testimony from a critical witness, and ineffective assistance of counsel. Ultimately, Wilson’s conviction was vacated, and the court ordered his immediate release.
Now, both Maldonado and Wilson have goals to help others whose lives are or are threatened to be impacted by the criminal justice system.
Maldonado earned his master’s degree in the Humanities from California State University Dominguez Hills and is now a certified legal reference aide in Pennsylvania.
Wilson is the President and Founder of the non-profit Before It’s Too Late, which serves to lessen the number of people who are incarcerated, both through preventative and restorative measures.
“We have a bifurcated mission,” Wilson explained. “On the front end, we are dedicated to helping youth before they develop the ideology that leads to violence and incarceration. And at the back end, we’re helping the wrongfully convicted get out of jail before they die in prison.”
At Penn Carey Law, students are continuing to both work with PLEP and expand its services to more cohesively address the needs of people who are incarcerated. Since the pandemic, the group has turned its focus specifically on women who are incarcerated.
“When we took over, we chose to focus on assisting people in Philadelphia’s women’s jails because this population is overlooked and lacking the information and resources to empower themselves in the system,” Hassan and Hernandez said. “[W]e are excited for this project to extend into next year and hope future Penn Carey Law students will continue this work by showing up and providing support for people in the Philadelphia criminal legal system.”