The Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP) is known for its work representing Massachusetts state prisoners in disciplinary and parole hearings since the early 1970s. PLAP is the only law school clinical program of its kind in the country. In addition to its work in prisons, PLAP also advocates for clients through lawsuits in the Massachusetts courts. Despite less than encouraging odds of winning prisoner lawsuits, earlier this year PLAP won a Massachusetts Superior Court case it filed on behalf of a client, Benjamin Blake, who was convicted in a state prison disciplinary hearing of smuggling drugs into prison. “The evidence was ridiculously thin, in fact it was nonexistent, and the students thought if there was ever a good case to challenge in court, this was one such case,” said Supervising Attorney and Senior Clinical Instructor John Fitzpatrick.
Preparing the case for court was a team effort, involving not only the PLAP students who represented Blake in his prison disciplinary hearing and wrote his administrative appeal to the state Department of Correction (DOC) (Sia Henry ’14 and Andrew Mamo ’14), but also students researching and writing the brief to the Superior Court (Brendan Selby ’13 and Corey Banks ’13). Oral argument before Superior Court Associate Justice Paul Wilson was handled by another PLAPper, Jake Alderdice ’14. Fitzpatrick, who supervised Alderdice during the argument, called his performance “amazing” and “better than most lawyers could do.”
“I’m grateful for all the help I got from the other student attorneys on the case and from John. It was great to see a judge step in and look somewhat critically at the issues within the Massachusetts prison system, such as guilty disciplinary findings on very little evidence, that PLAP confronts every day,” said Jake.
“The court argument lasted over an hour, with lots of vigorous questioning from the bench and back and forth between the Judge and counsel. Jake handled every question superbly, even the curve balls. It’s gratifying to see our students perform so skillfully in real-life court situations like this,” Fitzpatrick said.
Hon. John C. Cratsley (Ret.) who supervises the Judicial Process in Community Courts Clinic, spent time working with Alderdice and Fitzpatrick to prepare for the upcoming oral argument in court. “His experience and assistance was a huge help,” Fitzpatrick said.
Several weeks later, the Court released its detailed written decision, siding with PLAP’s arguments that the DOC’s guilty findings were unsupported by legally sufficient evidence. The Judge ordered the guilty findings vacated and the charges dismissed. After considering its options, the DOC chose not to appeal, and the decision now stands as the final – and for PLAP’s client, a winning – disposition of the case.
Meanwhile, PLAP has brought other recent lawsuits, with two pending suits challenging prison disciplinary hearing guilty findings for different clients. A third ongoing PLAP suit is against the state Parole Board for its refusal to parole a prisoner because of his mental disability of traumatic brain injury. “It looks like 2014 – 2015 will be a busy year in court for PLAP,” observed Fitzpatrick. “But this is exactly the sort of real litigation experience our students are looking for, and our clients benefit tremendously from having such capable and motivated student attorneys working for them.”
Read the Blake v. Department of Correction decision here.