The letter program is a part of the school’s Pro Bono Project. The school’s law library is the only publicly accessible law library between the state capitol and the Tennessee border.
“We’re not allowed to give them legal advice and give an opinion,” Suzanne Cavanaugh, Prison Letter Project coordinator, told San Quentin News. “But I can bring the horse water and hope that it drinks—and say ‘Here it is: if you were sentenced in November and this became effective in August, you can do the math.’”
A lot of the prisoners find out about the project mostly through word of mouth, noted Cavanaugh. Most of the letters ask for up-to-date legal information to deal with their court cases.
“I think it’s a miracle that these prisoners are resourceful enough. A lot of the letters they send us have a correct citation in them, and they say, please send me this case,” Cavanaugh said. “I wonder how they even get that. I think that’s amazing.”
Most of the letters come from male prisoners but not females and Cavanaugh wonders why. They also receive letters from people housed in the Cherokee reservation prison system.
“Doing these letters has a dual purpose: we are helping inmates, but it’s also honing our research skills,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a great way to look at something and say, ‘Gee I’ve never heard of this, and I’m not sure where to start.’ It forces you to go through [the] motions of how to look up something.”
The students field mail where prisoners are trying to figure out the statute of limitations, how to delve into elements of a crime, what does the state have to prove and what kind of evidence is dismissible.
“The problems prisoners are asking us to research are not that different from problems as an attorney in the criminal justice system,” Cavanaugh said. “A lot of times it feels like we’re sending back bad news, like: it doesn’t seem like this was an error, or no, this isn’t a reversible error.”
Cavanaugh is still upbeat about the work that they do. Even when they receive letters without clear questions, students figure it out and get an idea of what kinds of citations the prisoners might want.
They even deal with mail where prisoners don’t ask for anything.
“Some people just want to be heard; they just want to tell their story,” Cavanaugh said. “We write back and say we’re really sorry you’re going through this, let us know if there’s research we can do.”
The project was started by Professor Liz Johnson in 2013 to ensure that prisoners had the correct information they need to present to the courts. The project has grown to teach law students to have a life-long commitment to do pro bono work.
Cavanaugh would like to know if what they are doing is helping, because the students don’t see the end results. But the project does seek to reach more North Carolina prisoners.
“There’s a lot of people out there that don’t know that we exist and could be reaching out to us,” Cavanaugh said. “We are just a wealth of resources, and we’re law students who just want to get out there and help.”