January 26, 2010
Greenhaven Prison Project
As luck would have it, at the time I received the email, I had just finished teaching my students words relating to criminal behavior and incarceration.
This was December 2008, in Tacna, Peru. I was almost finished with my 2.5-year commitment as an English teacher in this little-known outpost at the edge of the world’s driest desert. That morning, I was checking email on the school computer, when my eyes widened as I read the scariest subject line ever: “Yale Law School – Decision.”
Upon opening the email, I realized that there are things that can wake you up faster than Peruvian coffee. Elated with the good news, I entered my Advanced English class and told my students I was heading to Yale.
“Wait, you’re going to jail?” they asked, “What did you do?”
“No, no,” I responded, trying to explain the problems of transposing to English the phonetic similarity in Spanish between “y” and “j.”
It was no use. The lesson on crime had stuck. The kids were just laughing, so I tried to join the joke and quipped, “Yes, I’m going to ‘jail.’ Where better to learn criminal law than from inside prison?”
Eleven months later, I was right where I said I’d be: sitting with ten convicted felons, inside one of New York’s maximum security prisons, accompanied by five YLS classmates. We were working together as part of the Greenhaven Prison Project, a bimonthly seminar on legal and political issues run jointly by prisoners and Yale Law students.
At that first session, we were debating the justice of providing free healthcare in prison when such care is not available to those on the outside. One prisoner started by arguing that pragmatic concerns—the guards’ need to be protected from diseases easily spread among inmates—weighed in favor of providing at least basic care.
The ensuing conversation would have been stimulating even if it hadn’t taken place behind bars. No one resorted to self-pity or attacks on the “system.” In a room filled with a mix of convicted murderers and possible future U.S. Attorneys, the frank dialogue actually caught me off guard.
Such an activity is also typical of what you can expect from the YLS student body, many of whom seek—perhaps to a fault—an education beyond “black letter” law. While some students flee Contracts and M&A classes for the world of theory, others—myself included—focus on Yale’s clinical program, which boasts a participation rate of around 80% for any given graduating class.
In the clinical program, the law school endows even second-term 1Ls with an enormous amount of responsibility by allowing them—under attorney supervision—to represent real clients who could face real consequences for shoddy legal work.
While I’m excited to jump into an immigrant rights clinic next semester, that bit about “shoddy work” gives me pause, especially as I peruse my Con Law professor’s comments on my first crack at a legal memo.
Perhaps this concern best explains my interest in the Greenhaven project: studying at a place that is renowned for the theoretical and enmeshed in the clinical, I also wish to maintain a purely visceral aspect to my legal education.
By many standards, I have not done much at Greenhaven; yet the connections I am forging have allowed me to believe in truth what I had originally said in jest: a young lawyer can learn a lot from inside a prison.