The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War, abolished slavery across the United States with one notable exception. According to the amendment, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (emphasis added). In other words, slavery and involuntary servitude remain constitutionally acceptable forms of punishment for individuals who are convicted of crimes. This loophole has a disturbing history of being used to target Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War, with local authorities imprisoning thousands of formerly enslaved people on faulty charges and exploiting their labor. In upholding the legality of forced prison labor, the Virginia Supreme Court even went so far as to describe a prisoner who challenged the practice as a “slave of the State.” Ruffin v. Commonwealth (1871).
Staying in touch with loved ones has become more important today than ever before. While technology offers many ways to stay in contact, incarcerated individuals face barriers to communication. Several prisons have paused in-person visitation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A phone call can cost up to $25, creating a financial burden for many families of the incarcerated. As the United States, which incarcerates more individuals than any other country, confronts the challenges of its criminal justice system, Proskauer’s pro bono client Ameelio, a nonprofit organization, is working to facilitate communication between incarcerated individuals and their families by removing cost barriers.
Ameelio’s Founder, Uzoma Orchingwa, explains below how he is finding innovative ways to keep people connected, no matter the cost.
Could you briefly explain how Ameelio works?
Ameelio serves as a technological bridge to the outside world for incarcerated individuals. We have three core products, our mobile application where loved ones can upload letters, postcards and photos for incarcerated individuals. Our second product is Letters for Organizations, where Ameelio helps organizations, like ministries, rehab groups, and educators send mass mail to prisons. Our third product is “Connect,” which is a videoconferencing tool we are launching in April 2021.
Last month, the U.S. state with the highest rate of incarceration (in the country with the largest prison population) took steps to reduce its incarceration of non-violent offenders.
Oklahoma’s Governor Kevin Stitt (Republican) commuted the sentences of over 500 inmates. All of these individuals were non-violent offenders with an average age of less than 40. This decision points to a larger shift in conventional wisdom concerning mass incarceration and its effect on public safety.
A 2017 study by the Vera Institute of Justice demonstrates the weak correlation over the past 40 years between incarceration and public safety. Out of concern for the skyrocketing cost of overcrowded prisons, cost-conscious public officials have joined with those desiring a less punitive, equitable system to rethink criminal justice in America. A consensus is building around the need to start directing resources to rehabilitation as opposed to incarceration. According to Governor Stitt, “[the goal] has been about changing the culture and process as we prepare to release individuals and to help set them up for success upon reentry into society.”
The United States comprises about 4% of the world’s population – and houses about 22% of the world’s prison population. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that each year approximately 650,000 people are released from prison. Helping this population with a successful transition following incarceration is not only critically important to the individuals involved, but to society generally.
This week, Proskauer partnered with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) to host a panel discussion addressing reentry challenges for previously incarcerated individuals and their families. Panelists included Judy Whiting, General Counsel at the Community Service Society of New York; Rob DeLeon, Associate Vice President of Programs at The Fortune Society; Esta Bigler, Director of Cornell University ILR’s Labor and Employment Law Program; and Gwen Washington, Director of Pro Bono at DC Law Students in Court. They analyzed barriers faced by the formerly incarcerated population, which is disproportionately drawn from minority and low income communities, and highlighted initiatives that offer solutions, including legal assistance in petitioning the court to seal old convictions and family law consultations to ease the reentry process.
A Proskauer team recently succeeded in obtaining parole on behalf of 69-year-old pro bono client Judith Clark, who has been in prison for nearly 38 years. This case may play an important role in effecting much needed parole reform in New York. Personally, it has been among the most satisfying cases on which I have ever worked.
Judith was the getaway driver for the infamous 1981 Brinks robbery that resulted in the killings of two police officers and a Brinks guard, and was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison. Judith’s transformation from radical revolutionary to a completely rehabilitated person began in the mid-1980s. Since then, she has devoted herself to helping others. Her efforts included starting an AIDS counseling program for prisoners that was copied nationwide, building a prison college program (and earning two degrees), helping to run her prison’s infant care center for incarcerated mothers, training more than a dozen dogs to help wounded veterans and law enforcement, and individually mentoring and counseling hundreds of women to help them turn their lives around. After personally interviewing Judith in 2016, Governor Cuomo granted her clemency, thereby making her eligible for parole.
With over two million Americans behind bars, this country has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our society pays a big price for that distinction, not only in the staggering cost of incarceration itself but in the long-term effects – most notably in terms of employment and housing –…
In this Q&A, partner Betsy Plevan shares her experience supporting the Office of the Appellate Defender’s First Monday in October Gala fundraiser, where she served as a mock Supreme Court Justice on the All-Star Bench in support of a great cause. The Office of Appellate Defender NYC provides appellate representation to indigent persons convicted of felonies.
Tell us a little about your connection to the Office of the Appellate Defender, and the purpose of the First Monday Gala.
Betsy: The OAD is widely known as one of the leading private non-profit organizations providing legal services to poor people. I’ve had the privilege of working on many pro bono matters dedicated to civil rights throughout my career, and my specific involvement with the OAD dates back 10 years to when I was a recipient of its annual Milton S. Gould Award for Outstanding Oral Advocacy.