The internship is approaching its end. Looking back, much has happened. We have a new intern at the office, and on the first few days, for the most of the time he was saying, “That’s crazy.” And it took us a while to realize what was crazy about what we just said, as we got so used to it.

We receive crazy letters and phone calls every day. Once, in the envelop we found a small bag of gun powder. The writer said he was building a bomb so that he could prevent a race riot in his facility. How he managed to get that letter out, we had no idea. We received letters of people telling us about their crimes, or how innocent they were – including infamous serial killers we later found out from the internet. Letters about horrible things that happened in prison, from sexual abuse to physical violence, and from unjust treatment to gravely insufficient services. We heard stories of prison breaks, about gang fights, about suicides, and about God (Once a caller said, “I am calling in just to tell you, the only religion on earth is compassion,” and then hung up immediately).

We went to prisons on a regular basis, dealing with reasonable or extremely mean officers, and polite or demanding clients. And just the general atmosphere of repression. Every time, walking out of prison, we feel a physical sense of headache – and imagine how people feel living there for decades.

All I meant to say is that, it has been an emotionally charged summer. We get to be there for people for whom we sometime are the only support, and that was empowering. Sometimes our clients are not even looking to win a case, just wanting to know that their voice is heard. “Once you are in prison,” one client once told me, “People forget you slowly.” It was heartbreaking when I received a letter from a client, which said, “Please keep in mind that over the decades I have acquired a lot of patience, so don’t feel pressured to do anything quickly, and don’t let this interfere with your school work.” It was also heartbreaking when I was looking up potential sources of support for a client, and found out her only person in life passed away more than ten years ago and she didn’t even know that yet – we were the people that had to be the messenger. They told me that even just with us being there, they felt better.

At the same time, it was overwhelming when realizing how little we could do. Every day, we turn down dozens of requests, regretfully informing them how we are a tiny organization with very limited staff and resources. Sometimes we were able to direct them to referrals that might be able to help them, and other times we were not even able to do that. Once a caller said she had tried everything, and we were her last source of hope, and I had to tell her that there was nothing we could do. It is a painful but important skill to learn, that is to overcome this feeling of powerlessness, knowing how little one can do yet still persist; to empathize with the client yet don’t let that emotion consume you. I see the long way to go, in becoming an effective lawyer that not only aspires to the greatest ideals but also brings real changes on the ground.

Returning Citizens

I met Stacey at a parole hearing of one of our clients. She spoke in front of the parole board to support him. There, she shared with the board and us her life-long friendship with our client, her faith in him, and after that, her efforts in building a community of support and services for returning citizens, especially for women.

It was then that I was introduced to the concept of returning citizens: starting with a new way of phrasing the identity with the emphasis on “citizen,” a social movement is underway helping people to fight the stigma that comes with incarceration, and to re-enter the outside society.

I reached out to Stacey after the hearing, and met with her a few weeks later. Before that, I attended a brainstorm session at the MIT Media Lab, “Project LinkedOut: Codesigning societal reentry with returning citizens.” The project aims to empower returning citizens with technology, and the session provided me with backgrounds on the topic of returning citizens. Participating in the session were about ten returning citizens now working in different fields, technology entrepreneurs, and researchers from MIT.

We first discussed difficulties associated with the aftermaths of incarceration. First of all, it’s the basic needs. Securing housing or funds for just starting off the new life can be a struggle. Also, as returning citizens lose their driver’s licence, they might find it difficult to get around for jobs, job interviews or just everyday needs. They also have difficulties accessing the mental healthcare that they need to re-adjust, especially as they are moving away from a structure style of life. Then, it is the criminal records. Although an increasing number of employers are becoming more open to applicants with a criminal record, returning citizens still suffer from, among others, a gap on their resume. Their backgrounds that contributed to their incarceration, from race to class to education, may also negatively impact their employment prospect. Particularly, most of them have had limited access to educational programs, either formal or informal, to equip them with skills for employment. However, to pursue education at the current time would involve tremendous opportunity cost. Thirdly, they lack access to information and network, either to find places to live, or to secure a job. In all this, gender plays a role: most jobs open to people with a criminal record involve much manual labor, and men are more likely to get these jobs than women. The stigma associated with crimes is also stronger on women than on men: they are seen as defying not only the societal norms but also the gender expectation.

Fortunately, people like Stacey and those at the Media Lab are working to address these problems. One of the ideas that the Media Lab was thinking is to design an app that consolidates information for returning citizens, such as employer ratings. Since returning citizens usually have restrictions regarding associating with other returning citizens, apps like this would greatly promote information sharing within the community. Stacy’s organization, New Beginning Re-entry Services, provides assistance to returning citizens from counseling to care planning. She is also raising funds for a new housing project that would provide transitional accommodation for more than a dozen female returning citizens.

Against the backdrop of mass incarceration and high recidivism rate, I hope that these projects can grow, and particularly, can receive support from the government, given the high economic and social costs associated with incarceration.

The Interaction Between the LGBTQ+ Community and the Correctional System

Part of our job at the PLAP involves attending event and hearings relevant to the welfare of the incarcerated population. Recently, we sat in two events that addressed the LGBTQ+ community in prison.

One event is “No Pride in Prison,” a legislative briefing that took place at the Massachusetts State House on June 25. Speakers include health policy researchers, state legislators, and advocates of prisoners’ rights, some of whom were previously incarcerated. The briefing walked through current conditionsof the LGBTQ+ community in the correctional system, and pointed to potential directions for reform and social services.

We learned how the LGBTQ+ identity of impacts all aspects of one’s interaction with the correctional system. Regarding entering into the system, LGBTQ youths “appear to be more ‘justice-involved,'” as they face unique challenges ranging from family rejection and homelessness, and from harassment to being forced into “survival crimes” such as shop-lifting and sex work. Once in prison, they also face higher possibility of sexual harassment, and are taken less seriously when they file complaints.

Particularly troubling are the challenges faces by transgender women prisoners. Angie Resto, a transgender woman shared with us her experience living in a man’s prison, from the difficulties and inconveniences of acquiring the necessary personal items and medical attention, to the fear and shame of having to share the showering space with men.

This issue is addressed more elaborately through a meeting of the Special Commission to Study Health and Safety of LGBTQI Prisoners held on May 31. In the meeting, the Commission discussed how to provide access to needs of transgender women prisoners, such as hormones and relevant surgeries. It focused on the role that the healthcare provider can do, from making appointments more available, to expanding its mental health services catering to the LBBTQI community. The meeting also presented progresses made within the correctional system: all prisoners have been issued new ID cards with their preferred gender, pronouns, and the preferred gender of correctional officers who would conduct searches on them. Most importantly, it discussed how to promote cultural competency among officers and prisoners, so as to create a safe environment for transgender prisoners.

Mental Health in the Women’s Prison

[Details may be omitted or altered for protection of confidentiality.]

This is a rather heavy post for me to write today. Not too long ago, we had to terminate representation of a client due to serious mental health issues that interfered with our work with her. For more than a month, we had been working on her case, during which we were able to visit her seven times. The first visit was already difficult, as she was in Closed Custody Unit (“CCU”) due to a disciplinary matter, and we had to talk to her over the phone while she was behind the glass. She was logical, but nervous and irritable. Many times I observed her placing her nails on the table, and moving both hands across the table a few times before she started responding to our questions.

Her condition deteriorated over time, and eventually, it reached a point where our supervisor decided that we had to terminate for our protection and for hers. The last visit involved much screaming, questioning, and the prison guard forcing her out of the visiting room.

Exiting the facility, the three of us walked in a long silence. Naturally, we were frustrated that we were not better informed or better equipped to help her. We did not have the knowledge or resources to understand her conditions, to know how to communicate effectively with her, and to work with her over the already complicated process that can be stressful for anyone. Her conditions were what prevented us from helping her, but also were what made her more in need of help. Regarding this, I am contemplating the potential of pairing up lawyers and law students with social workers during legal representation, so that our services can be more effective. I have been reaching out to research projects that have been experimenting with the idea.

More frustrating is that we knew her case, though extreme, was not singular, and mental health interferes with aspects of people’s lives beyond their legal cases. While mental health issues strike the prison population across the board, female prisoners suffer disproportionately. In the Massachusetts state prison system, 79% of female prisoners had open mental health cases, 12% had a serious mental illness (SMI), and 55% were on psychotropic medication for the Custody Population. In comparison, for men, 31% had open mental health cases, 7% had a serious mental illness (SMI), and 22% were on psychotropic medication for the Custody Population. (“Prison Population Trends,” ).

What partly explains the disparity is that men and women usually come to prison for different reasons. Women often carry with them more trauma: a report shows that 86% of women prisoners were survivors of sexual abuse, ( They also tend to shoulder more family responsibilities that incarceration makes difficult to handle. These unique needs, though pressing, are usually not sufficiently addressed within the correctional system.

One factor that negatively impacted the situation might be the contracting system of healthcare services in the correctional system. Currently, the facilities outsource medical and mental health care to private contractors. Usually, it is done through a bidding system, which provides the contractors the incentive to cut costs and thus lowering their bid. As a result, they may under-diagnose and under-treat patients. Hopefully, as the consequences of such system spell out, steps would be taken to improve the situation.


Much of our work involves representing clients for hearings for their disciplinary reports, or sometimes called “D-tickets.” Clients usually call us or write to us when they receive a D-ticket they want a hearing for; when seeking legal representation, they can request a continuance that can delay their originally scheduled hearing date. If they do not want a hearing, then usually they accept an informal sanction, and have that ticket on their record (with some of the accusations dropped), which might influence their classification (i.e. deciding which level of security they require, and consequently, which prison they live in) or their parole.

Prisoners receive D-tickets for a wide range of reasons. It can be something as serious as escaping from prison, killing or harming someone, or starting a riot in prison (or the attempt to do these things). It can also be something as trivial as having an extra sweatshirt for which the officer cannot find the record for, or talking back to an officer. For the more serious offenses, the District Attorney might be involved, and the prisoner may be criminally prosecuted (the ticket would say “DA referred”). They may also be “DDU referred,” meaning that the prisoner may face time in the “Departmental Disciplinary Unit” (which is practically solitary confinement, where prisoners are allowed one hour per day outside the cell). For the less serious offenses, prisoners usually receive sanctions such as losing access to phone or canteen, or extra duty time.

When thinking about the rules and violations, one should take into account the rigid and intense environment in prisons. When interviewing clients, one thing I always hear is the importance of “respect,” or in the case of dealing with officers, deference. A look in the eyes, or accidentally bumping into another person may seem innocent outside, but can easily start a conflict in prison. Miscommunication happens as frequently in prison as outside, if not more, but in prison the inmates have the bear the consequences of much of it.

If a prisoner decides to have a hearing for a D-ticket, and if we are able to represent her, then we would conduct discovery: interview the client and witnesses, if any, watch relevant video records of the incident, and read relevant documents (e.g. the text of the rules violated, medical records of the client). We also collect evidence and create exhibits for the hearing. During the hearing, we would cross examine the reporting officer, and if our client chooses to testify, direct examine her. Finally, we would deliver a closing statement.

Occasionally, when the appeal process within the administrative system is depleted, and when particularly when there is a civil rights issue involved, we appeal the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Fighting a D-ticket is usually an uphill battle. The D-hearing is like a court where the prosecutor, the trial judge, and the appellate judge are all from the same team. Sometimes the ticket itself and the decision are reasonable, while at other times, they can be troubling to one’s mind. Clients with disability are particularly harmed in the system, as the institution fails to meet their special needs while holding them accountable for the difficulties stemming from their disability. The system is also harder on women: they receive D-tickets more often, for more trivial things, and receive harsher punishment. Among others, they are more easily found guilty for “insolence.” The expectation that women fit into their gender norms of “obedience” probably plays into the picture.

Client Interview and Parole Case Overview

[To protect confidentiality, no name or identifying information will appear in this post, and facts may be altered.]

Sometimes you wait for her, and sometimes she waits for you. The earlier one sits in an attorney room in the visiting area, and the first sight is almost always nervous on both sides. Sometimes, she does not know that you are coming: the turnaround is so short and you just have to go right away. A letter would arrive later than you do – and only she can call you, you cannot call her.

She might have called, or written a letter to your office, months and months ago, the record of which buried in the hundreds of intakes that flow in daily. You dig out her case, and decide to meet her. And here you are.

Almost always, she still wants representation. There are few organizations around doing similar work, and most, if not all, are understaffed student run volunteering organizations. “I’m so glad you come,” almost all of my clients said in our first meeting, “I was planning to go on my own, and that scares me.”

It is a strange but empowering feeling that your client trusts you, even if you have just met – even if you know most of the time, she has little choice. Together, you would walk through her life’s story, and form a narrative as to who she is today.

After the client signs the paperwork that seals your representation and allows you to acquire paperwork from the Department of Justice, from the Parole Board, and from the medical record office, among others. Very soon, through these files, her whole life would be in front of you. But even before that, she would tell it to you.

Client interview is always an intensive experience, especially with female clients. We usually start with institutional history, that is, what she has done after she enters prison: what programs has she taken (e.g. Restorative Justice, AA, NA), what courses is she enrolled in, what rules has she violated, how frequently, and how she reacted. We start here because these are usually more matter of fact, and less emotionally charged.

Then we move on to personal history, that is, the family and community she grew up in, the relationships she had in her life, her education or lack thereof… Usually, the story would be filled with trauma, abuse, and dysfunction. Race, gender, and class play important parts in these difficulties. If the client feels uncomfortable proceeding further, we would pause and call it a day.

Then comes perhaps the most heavy part, the crime itself. As the Parole Board usually goes to details of the crime, partly in order to see if the candidate has reflected on it and understood its weight, we would need to help the client face the crime. It sometimes takes much courage and effort on both sides.

For parole hearings, we visit clients for at least three times, and usually more. After the overview in the first time, we go on to collect more information, and conduct mock interviews with potential questions the board may ask. Outside client visits, we also contact her supporters to collect letters of support and prepare them if they intend to speak at the hearing, and collect litigation records to confirm the narrative of the crime. After the hearing, the common practice today is that the board allows two weeks for us to compile a memorandum. Usually, decisions come down after six to nine months.

Going in Front of the Board

[To protect confidentiality, no name or identifying information will appear in this post, and facts may be altered.]

You lock your valuables in your car, exchange your ID into a white card clipped on your shirt, go through security, walk across the hearing room into the waiting room, and see your client one last time before she walks into her big day – when she goes in front of the board at her parole hearing, and makes the case that she is suitable for parole and for life outside.

For the first time, she is not in the green sweatshirt everyone wears in prison. Sitting in a chair that is the only thing in the room, she is in a white blouse, a little too large for her, but she looks great. “They picked it for me,” she smiled with a little embarrassment, “If it were up to me, I would have picked something different.” “You look great and you will do great.”

Also for the first time, you see her in handcuffs and anklets. All the illusion of equality breaks down – all the hours you sat across the table from her, talked with her, joked with her, and shook her hands. You ask the guard if she can have one hand released so that she can take notes during the hearing, and he says no. Now when her blouse slides down her shoulder, and she twists her shoulder to move it back, you will have to reach across and help her with it; and this pains you.

The guard calls, and you leave the waiting room, go back to the hearing room, sit down at the table, and wait for her. Board members come in, sit down at the spot that has their names on. And there she comes, holding her hands together so that the handcuffs make less of a noise. You move the tissue box closer to you – she would need it later.

On the right side of the room is her family and friends – those who come to support her candidacy for parole. On the left side is the opposition – victim’s family and friends, and an Assistant District Attorney.

The chair of the board introduces herself and the rest of the board members, walks the room through the procedures, and swears in anyone who would testify. You give an opening statement, outlining her remorse and her progress, followed by her own opening statement. And then starts the storm.

From her childhood, to the crime that put her in prison, to violations she committed in prison… One by one, the board members pose poignant questions to test her suitability for parole. They may ask, “What were you thinking when you killed so and so? Can you help us understand your mental state?” Worse, the question may not be a question, “Do you know what your problem is? What people would call you? I can tell you if you can’t say it. Sociopath; psychopath. You are a scary person.”

After the questioning, supporters may testify, with the maximum of five minutes. Mother – a tiny, old lady with a low, staggering voice – ends her speech, almost sobbing, by saying that there is so much more she wanted to say but she forgets. Daughter, shivering, recounts how she used to blame and hate her, while now realizing how she loves her and needs her. Friends who grew up with her talk about how they shared the same struggle, and how they have overcome and she will as well. Former employer vouching for her integrity.

Then the opposition testifies. Victim’s family break down at the table, explaining how they are never able to recover. The ADA refreshes the trial, and the horrifying details of the crime.

Finally, you give a closing argument, pointing out inaccuracies in the board’s questioning, and emphasizing her efforts and progress. The hearing ends, and people leave the room in fives accompanied by guards.

Maybe you have five last minutes to talk to your client again, and maybe the guard comes back to you, and tells you that she has already walked down the stairs.

Intro: Into MCI-Framingham, the Women’s Prison

It is almost underwhelming when you arrive at MCI-Framingham. Unlike the stereotype one remembers from movies, where tiny windows sprinkle on high walls like bullet holes, hidden in the middle of the woods, Framingham is a red building almost inconspicuous among its surroundings of auto shops, embroidery stores, and printing companies.

Entering into the hallway, you would see families and friends sitting at the waiting area, as officers process them for visits and prepare the inmates. From time to time, officers come out of the gate after their shift, carry plastic, transparent bags in various shapes, waving goodbye to those at the front desk. Sometimes, you would see vet dogs being returned from their weekend trips by local volunteers: over the weekdays, they are trained by prisoners in Framingham through the “America‚Äôs VetDogs Prison Puppy Program,” a job many prisoners would love to have.

As the officer calls, one moves to the safety inspection, and into the gate towards the visiting rooms. A common scene in the visiting room is that children throwing and catching plastic balls with their mothers, while their fathers sit on the couch watching.

While more than a dozen men’s prisons spread throughout the state, Framingham along with the South Middlesex Correctional Center across the street are the only women’s state prisons in Massachusetts. Here, more than six hundred inmates live, eat, do programs, work, and sleep.

For my internship at Prison Legal Assistance Project (“PLAP”), Framingham would be a frequent site. PLAP conducts legal research for clients in prison, and represents them for, among others, disciplinary report hearing and second degree lifer parole hearings (more on D-reports and parole in subsequent posts).

Prisoners get disciplinary reports if they violate the law or rules in the prison. As a consequence, they usually lose certain privileges, such as access to canteen or phone; sometime, especially for reports involving violence, they may be locked up in segregation (Massachusetts has changing, various names for this. Solitary confinement is the old word that they no longer use, partly for negative publications). If the prisoner wants to challenge the report, they may have a hearing, where student attorneys can represent them.

As for second degree lifer parole: second degree lifers are parole eligible after serving 15 years of sentence. They would go in front of the Massachusetts Parole Board for a hearing roughly 2 hours long.

Even taking into account the relative small population of female prisoners, female clients reach out to PLAP less than their male counterparts. Rarely do we receive calls or letters requesting assistance on research or D-reports from female prisoners, although studies show that female prisoners more easily receive D-reports for similar offenses as male prisoners, and are usually sanctioned more heavily. This might shed light on the unique challenges that female prisoners face in the correctional system, which is already tough in itself.

Over the summer, I plan to on the one hand serve as many female clients as possible, and on the other hand figure out the reason why they reach out less as well as understand better their situation in general.