Skip to main content area Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

PEAP Speaker: Expanding Need for Public Interest Advocates

February 10, 2011
Angus Love, executive director of the PA Institutional Law Project, speaks at Penn Law on Feb. 9
By Jenny Chung C‘12

“There is a need for this country to recognize that public healthcare is of paramount importance,” Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, informed an audience of Penn Law students and faculty on Feb. 9. Love spoke an at event organized by the Prisoners’ Education and Advocacy Project (PEAP), a pro bono group of Penn Law student volunteers who work with the Public Defender’s Office and other groups to advocate for prisoners’ rights and visit prisons three times a week to teach, and cosponsored by the Health Law Group.

With over 30 years of civil litigation experience, Love provides free legal assistance to institutionalized individuals and is an active board member of both the Pennsylvania Prison Society and Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center. He also currently serves on the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “My rough estimate is that 90 percent of lawyers in this country work for 10 percent of the people, and 10 percent of the lawyers work for the other 90 percent,” Love said, emphasizing the importance of expanding involvement in public interest law.

According to Love, the need for public interest advocates is more timely than ever, as Pennsylvania’s prison system now confronts a burgeoning and rapidly aging prison population with medical needs its current healthcare policies are unable to adequately address. “In general, medical care in prison…is better than nothing,” Love said. “But not nearly as good as what we can afford in the free world.” He explained that because the incarcerated lack both financial and political clout, their interests are often overlooked in a political environment increasingly driven by money.

For example, Love referenced a case on which he is currently working involving a pro se litigant who had lost his appeal in lower court because he failed to provide an expert, which constituted grounds for dismissal. Another case concerns the need for litigants to produce a doctor’s certificate legitimating their claims before filing state court action. “Pro se litigants in prison don’t have access to these requirements—it’s an impediment to poor people accessing the courts,” Love said. He then discussed his previous involvement with the treatment of chronic diseases in prisons, which routinely transfer prisoners with chronic diseases from institution to institution to reduce expenses.

While working on a class-action lawsuit in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union in the early 1990s, Love made significant strides toward improving the medical care provided by the state system. The team, which had hired experts in five different fields and toured facilities within the Pennsylvania correction system, had by the end of the lawsuit “achieved a lot of important advances for their medical system,” Love recalled. “They didn’t have standardized providers or protocols, which we insisted on…we got a number of staffing ratio upgrades, medical protocols for all the chronic diseases and established protocols which could be used throughout the entire system,” he said.

In spite of this progress, Love contends much remains to be done. For instance, while Pennsylvania’s criteria for determining Hepatitis C treatment eligibility excludes a significant percentage of inmates, a Philadelphia Inquirer study on Hepatitis C programs in prisons found that Pennsylvania had the best program in the country. “I couldn’t believe it,” Love said. “New Jersey had no program—only five or ten other states had even addressed the issue…I was shocked and saddened that this was the state of medical care.”

Love’s overview of the medical care in prisons and his own extensive public interest work included other alarming anecdotes. He had represented one prisoner with a torn kneecap who, after repeated misdiagnoses, received an operation two months after his injury was accurately identified and now walks with a permanent limp. “The state should be responsible for who they hire as medical provider—if they don’t make good, the state should indemnify,” he said.

In another class-action case against a halfway house, an epileptic man was denied the amount of medication he required and made to take an upper bunk. He later suffered a seizure, fell off the top bunk and was seriously injured. A resident from the same facility who suffered an asthma attack was told to visit a hospital two miles away. “The intake procedures, prescription drugs and emergency preparedness were all inadequate,” Love said.
He also cited dental care and mental health resources in prisons as areas in dire need of improvement. As a result of the Kennedy-era deinstitutionalization movement, a sizable proportion of the prison population are those with mental health issues. “Because of the prison disciplinary system, these folks don’t do well and end up in solitary confinement even if they’re obviously mentally disturbed,” Love said, adding that he is at present working on possible litigation in that area.

In addition to improving the accessibility, quality and breadth of available healthcare, Love stressed the necessity of evaluating the origins of proposed legislation. “I find it shocking that private prison companies wrote the Arizona immigration law,” Love said, explaining that the rise in post-9/11 immigration detention was instrumental to revitalizing the private prison industry. “There’s an obvious conflict of interest…now that Pennsylvania’s considering immigration laws more draconian than those in Arizona,” he said, “there needs to be a discussion about who’s making laws and who stands to benefit if they are passed.”

According to Vincent Ling, a second-year law student and the events and school relations co-coordinator for PEAP, the pro bono group that coordinated the event, a “big part of the group’s mission is to educate the community about prisoners’ issues, so one way we’re doing that is bringing guest speakers to the Law School to discuss them.” PEAP Curriculum Development Coordinator and second-year law student Rachel Harris added, “We see the prisoners face-to-face every week, and we wanted [Love] to come and share his firsthand experience for the benefit of other students who may not have that opportunity.”