As COVID-19 forces many schools and universities to face closure, the students at Wake Forest University, through its Prison Letter Project, had to refocus how to provide research services to those incarcerated in their state.
“We’ve transitioned to a virtual model,” said Ashley Willard, about the pro bono project. “Many of our law students are working from home now.”
The Prison Letter Project provides research for legal information requests from North Carolina’s incarcerated population.
With the coronavirus causing major outbreaks in most of the nation’s prison systems, many prisons have shut down such prison operations as visiting, self-help groups, access to recreation, and regular and law libraries. This makes the Prison Letter Project a much-needed resource for North Carolina’s incarcerated to get current legal information.
“We are here to help as much as we can,” said Willard. “However, Prison Letter Project cannot give legal advice or provide representation to anyone.” This means that the project can provide research on any legal topic requested, but cannot apply that research to the facts of any particular case, she added.
Willard recognizes that some incarcerated people may have those needs, but their program only provides research.
“Fortunately, there are many other organizations, including Wake Forest Innocence and Justice Clinic, that are set up to provide those services,” she said.
The research program allows the incarcerated to receive up to 40 pages (20 pages front and back) of requested legal research. The most common requests include:
• Case law (opinions from cases),
• Statutory text on criminal charges or sentencing guidelines,
• Information about motions for appropriate relief.
“The more specific the request, the better we will be able to help,” said Willard. “If you know the citation of a certain case or a statute, that’s especially helpful. If a request is vague, we still try our best to gather research. But we have a better chance of gathering the information that individuals need if the requests are clear and specific as possible,” she added.
To protect law students against the coronavirus, the project’s virtual model helps process the incoming request.
“Whenever we receive a letter, we scan it and send it to a student to complete the request,” said Williard. “They return their letters, which are reviewed to make sure that the research is complete and accurate, and we print off the research and mail everything back (to those that have requested the information),” she explained.
The project’s continued legal and criminal justice innovation is not only helping the incarcerated but providing the next generation of lawyers with the hands-on training they will need for a profession that includes judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
“This is their first opportunity to help someone during law school,” said Willard. “It is an opportunity for them to step back from the law school environment, apply what they have learned in the classroom and put their research skills into practice.”
The program is rewarding for those who help with the work, said Willard. The whole Prison Letter team enjoys getting the word out about this experience.
“Our wait-list is always full of students eager to give their time and help however they can,” she said. “We love to spread the word about our program so more students get the chance to be involved.”
North Carolina incarcerated can write the project at:
WFU Law Prison Letters
Professional Center Library
P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109