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 in 2005 by a group of students including Dean of Students Felicia Lin and Miriam Nemeth, 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.
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.
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,” says Lin, reflecting on their post-release reunion.
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 says. “How to structure arguments and do legal research—honing those two skills while keeping in mind what we learned.”
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.
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.
“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,” says current PLEP board members Aleyah Hassan and Isabella Hernandez. “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.”
Read more at Penn Carey Law.