High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California
One Down, Many to Go
by Eliza Hersh
I’ll warn you now that this post has a buried lede.
A few years back, Vince came to the East Bay Community Law Center’s Clean Slate Practice seeking legal help for his cousin, Joseph, who is serving a Three-Strikes prison sentence of 34 years to life. Joseph’s committing offenses? Stealing a chainsaw off the back of a public utility truck, stealing a video camera, and “possessing” a firearm with a felony record. The firearm in question was his girlfriend’s antique relic hanging high on the wall of her house, which the police searched when they came looking for the chainsaw. Joseph’s “strike priors” that made this a Three-Strikes case? The first conviction is now 40 years old and would have been a misdemeanor but for his attorney’s mistake. The second conviction he pled to on a prosecutor’s promise that it would never be charged as a strike in a subsequent case. It was, and Joseph’s defense attorney, a different one, missed that.
Joseph, almost 60 years old, has now served a decade in prison. He has significant health problems. He cannot read or write, and left school before completing 8th grade.
At first it appeared as if there might be a quick fix. Rookie mistake. But the more we learned about Joseph’s case, the more compelling we found it. Because of the case’s posture, Joseph was not entitled to counsel. We realized that if we didn’t take the case no one would. “But it’s not the kind of case we take,” I told Rudy Alejo, the law student intent on taking the case. Rudy—already an irritatingly excellent advocate—was very, very persistent. So we had ourselves a Three Strikes Case.
Clean Slate is not funded to represent Three Strikes clients, and there’s no loose change floating around in EBCLC’s proverbial couch cushions— EBCLC does not have room in its budget for coffee creamer of the non-powdered variety. So we called on a large and ever-expanding group of incredibly generous and patient attorneys, law students, and volunteer experts. A pro bono village, if you will. Because as the old saying goes, “It takes a village to break a client out of the pokey.”
We set out to prove that Joseph was eligible for release. And even the simplest tasks were no small commitment: It was a 12-hour round-trip drive to High Desert State prison in Susanville, California each time we needed to meet with Joseph. So we got a Susan. Susan Hutcher, a retired public defender, joined (or, if you know Susan, you know the more accurate verb is “stormed”) the village and won some of our break-through victories. One of her many successes was persuading the prosecutor from one of Joseph’s prior cases to sign a sworn declaration admitting that he had made a significant error. For you non-criminal-defense-type people, what Susan did is the equivalent of teaching a rabbit to sing like James Brown: A wonderful and nearly impossible feat. She also recruited Dr. Alan Abrams, a psychiatrist who flew to Northern California to evaluate Joseph. For free. Dr. Abrams’ findings put a prominent expert’s stamp on what we already knew about Joseph: His release would pose no real threat to public safety.
At first, we approached the case as a difficult habeas project. But the law, blessedly, changed on us mid-stream. Joseph is “fortunate” to be one of the approximately 3,500 people in California serving life sentences for relatively minor felony offenses who are eligible for resentencing under Proposition 36, the 2012 initiative that overhauled California’s draconian Three Strikes Law. These Californians can now petition for resentencing if their convictions are for non-violent offenses, and if they can prove they would not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety upon release. Or, as most humans on planet Earth would call them, “People who do not belong in prison.”
Joseph ultimately owes his soon-to-come freedom to Prop 36. And to the villagers’ hundreds of hours of work, which paid off in December when a judge resentenced Joseph. He will be released in March and reunited with his loved ones, including grandchildren he has never met. His family desperately wants him home.
That’s not the buried lede.
I wish it were the end, with congratulations all around. But “congratulations” feels like the wrong sentiment. Of course, I’m deeply grateful to Joseph’s pro bono village for their hard work, and proud that EBCLC has the community ties to assemble such a wonderful team. And certainly, this was a good outcome for Joseph.
But Prop 36 is only the first step in the broader sentencing reform California so desperately needs. What about the many thousands of people serving life sentences in California who are ineligible for resentencing under Prop 36, yet who have served much more time in prison than can be squared with sound public policy, fiscal responsibility, and human decency?
There is a lot of work still to be done. Take Matthew’s case. He has served 20 years of a life sentence imposed under the old Three Strikes regime. The crime was an assault, which occurred during a drunken street brawl. At the time, Matthew was a homeless, alcoholic teenager who had just aged out of foster care, where he landed after escaping an abusive home. Matthew makes no excuses for his crimes, and over the last two decades in prison he has educated and transformed himself into someone who could now rejoin his community as a self-sufficient, mature adult. But first, he needs a pro bono village to take on his case. Or even a single villager—licensed to practice law in California and humble enough to ask for help if needed—will do just fine.
That’s the buried lede: A call for help for Matthew. EBCLC can’t take on his case, but we can promise great rewards for those who do. In the visiting room at San Quentin where we were meeting with Joseph before his resentencing hearing, I noticed that the back of the bag of potato chips he was eating advertised a sweepstakes contest with a grand prize of one million dollars. “What would you do with one million dollars?” I asked him. Without missing a beat Joseph replied, “Pay it all to you guys!” Grand prize indeed.
Can you take Matthew’s case? Contact Eliza at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are indebted to the people who won Joseph his freedom, including law students Tajuana Gray, Alex Pauley, Shana Heller, Katie Adamides, John Chamberlain, and Rudy Alejo. And lawyers: Rudy, after graduating, returned to EBCLC as an attorney, and did countless hours of excellent work on the case; Susan Hutcher, of course; Suzanne Zalev, who probably didn’t realize she was signing up to become a gun expert; the great jailhouse lawyer at Folsom who helped Joseph; EBCLC board member Mike Ng of Kerr & Wagstaffe introduced us to the wonderful Kelly Corcoran, an associate in his firm who joined Joseph’s team and made the long trek to Susanville, temporally and metaphorically; and finally, Prop 36 bosses Mike Romano and Susan Champion at Stanford’s Three Strikes Clinic who have helped create this statewide outbreak of freedom.
I’m Sorry That the System Isn’t Fair: Working with Immigrants in Detention
Written by a 2013 summer law student intern with EBCLC’s Immigration Clinic.
I quickly cross the parking lot of the West County Detention Facility with the other EBCLC interns. It’s a cold gray morning here in Richmond, California and none of us is dressed for the weather. But a minute of brisk walking brings us through a double set of glass doors and into an empty waiting room. The attorneys are right behind us, and as they come in, the lobby fills up with chatter. They swap tips about their cases. They confirm who will be going to the women’s pod to do intakes for the immigrant detainees and who will be going to the men’s pod to do the same.
We wait for the bureaucracy on the other side of the walls to start grinding. We wait to be checked in; we wait as we’re told that one attorney’s clearance didn’t go through and that she has to try again next week. We wait to be allowed in one at a time through a metal detector that goes off at belt buckles and shoe soles. We wait to be let in through the first set of locked doors, then the next, and the next, on and on until we are finally through the last door.
As our team walks across the courtyard we see lines of detainees walking from one building to another, their arms behind their backs, dressed in jumpsuits of neon green, of yellow, of red. One of the attorneys waves to a detainee she knows, who smiles in return. “I don’t think he’s allowed to wave back,” she says to the rest of us. “Whenever they walk they have to keep their hands behind their backs and stay in single file.”
I go with a group into the men’s pod. A pod, I learned my first visit, is the living quarters of the detainees. We have to buzz in, and a uniformed guard lets us enter.
As soon as we arrive, the immigrant detainees come up to us, asking to sign up to see an attorney, often launching straight into a story about their situation. We direct them to a sign-up sheet by the sheriff’s desk and the attorneys begin doing intakes, asking the detainees about their individual circumstances and giving advice..
I go with a fellow intern, J, to one of the round tables to sit with a cluster of ten or twelve detainees and explain to them their legal rights and options. Once we are all seated, it feels absurdly like we are about to have a round table discussion about some school project. But this is so much more real than anything you do in school. Just a few minutes into our presentation, a young man asks us how long he will be in detention. We tell him that there’s a number he can call to find out more information about his case, but that he’ll need his alien registration number which should have been on the papers given to him when he was detained. He shakes his head. “They didn’t give me anything. I don’t know what my number is. What can I do?”
Every week it’s like this – detainees crowded around us, hungry for any information we can give them, desperate to get a consultation with a lawyer. Every week the need is so much greater than we can fill. I think about all the jobless lawyers out there and then look at all the detainees who would do anything for an attorney and wonder if there isn’t something wrong with the market that there’s no way to match them up.
Once our twenty minute presentation is up and we’ve answered all the questions we can, we’re pulled out to do another presentation on the other side of the pod. This time there are over thirty detainees. I exchange glances with a detainee who I met on my very first visit, almost ten weeks ago. I remember the first time how determined he was to get out – he was one of the ones who came up to us to ask questions almost as soon as we stepped into the door. Now, his energy has gone. When I ask for questions at the end, he speaks up only to say, “I signed up to see an attorney last time, and the last time, but nobody could meet with me. Will I get to talk to someone this week?”
He sounds frustrated, and I feel bad. We have only a team of eight attorneys, plus two interns, and we’re not enough. Every week the list of detainees who want to see a lawyer stretches down the sheet of paper and we only ever get to a handful of them before our time is up and we are escorted off the premises. I can only imagine what it must be like, to wait here day after day, week after week, not knowing when you’ll be let out, not knowing where you’ll be transported to next, just waiting for something to happen, for someone – even an intern – to talk to me and tell me what’s going on.
And as a legal intern, I can’t even give the legal advice these detainees need. So instead, I give what I can: my respect. I’m sorry, I tell the thirty men gathered before me. I’m sorry. I know it’s frustrating. I know it’s hard. I know you’ve been waiting and waiting to find out what’s going to happen to you, and that you still haven’t had the chance to meet with a lawyer. The Spanish feels clumsy in my mouth as I try to express emotions that I’ve harbored for a long time. I’m sorry, I especially want to tell the young father who tells me if he has to, he will give up his legal fight and return to Mexico alone, leaving his U.S. born children. I’m sorry, I want to say to all of them, that the system isn’t fair.
Inmates walk in line around the West County Detention Facility’s yard. (Photo by: Rachel Witte):
Holding onto Homes for the Holidays
December 6, 2013
The holidays are an especially brutal time of year to be evicted. Children are hoping for presents, family is expecting to visit and the non-profits where low-income people turn for help are shutting down and giving their employees a much needed break.
The crazy thing is, cash-strapped and understaffed as the Superior Court is, the eviction docket never slows down. The weekly eviction bench trial calendar takes place on the day after Christmas this year. A few years ago it was on Christmas Eve. This is a docket in which twenty or so unrepresented tenants typically lose their homes in rapid succession.
Landlords who are unfeeling, who merely lack compassion, don’t push to have eviction cases heard during the holidays- they, like all of us, have better things to do. So the timing of these holiday evictions is often deliberately hurtful. These are the cases where a middle-aged white man shouts about how your single-mother client shouldn’t have had so many kids. The cases where a family of immigrants is told that if they take their eviction case to court the judge will find out they are undocumented.
Although the legal process continues apace, unconcerned by the Dickensian ramifications of dragging people into court at this time of year, the effect on the people being evicted changes dramatically. It is as if the reserve of strength that people draw on during times of trouble just gets tapped out. The stoicism, the determination, the sense that justice may prevail: all of it is gone. During the holidays, the threat of homelessness just seems to hurt more.
That a landlord would choose to evict now? Why now? The shock of it overwhelms people and they let their guard down. As an advocate, this is the time when we get the clearest view of what it feels like to stand in our client’s shoes, on the brink of homelessness. This is the time when our clients just don’t have the wherewithal to shield us from their hurt, and we spend December immersed in it. So every year we are reminded of something that we would do well to remember all year round: When it comes to the pain and anguish of defending an eviction, eleven months out of the year it’s our clients who are protecting us.
We can focus on hope, lean on family and friends, and relish our successes. Most of all, we can look forward to January and be grateful. Soon our clients’ resilience will return, and so many of them will quietly resume a selfless act we take for granted; sparing us from feeling the brunt of their fear and pain.
A place of one’s own: a daughter’s work and recollections on homelessness
By Samantha Reed
In September, I spent time at the “Bulb,” a landfill and recreational area owned by the City of Albany which is home to over sixty people living in makeshift encampments. I was taking declarations from Bulb residents about the City of Albany’s plan to evict them. The East Bay Community Law Center and others have filed a lawsuit against the city, trying to prevent the eviction and find the residents permanent housing.
The Bulb residents’ stories were as compelling as they were varied. For the most part, they feel safe and happy there. They have a community that protects and provides for each other. They can breathe clean air and protect themselves from the elements. They can cook, serve meals, and even host guests. They can sleep without being woken up and hassled by police or anyone else. They have a place of their own, with some degree of privacy, self-determination and dignity.
The legal work was particularly bittersweet for me—16 years ago that weekend, my father died while living on the streets of Los Angeles. David Reed was struck by a bus on September 14, 1997. We know little else about the accident. The bus driver may have been driving recklessly, or my father may have wandered into the street without looking both ways. It is possible, too, that he intentionally put himself in the bus’s path, motivated by the voices that haunted him. My father battled severe paranoid schizophrenia for most of his life.
The only thing we know for certain is that the circumstances of his death were not thoroughly investigated. Who really cares when a homeless person dies on the street? It took three days for the coroner to identify my father’s body—a task only completed when the police were able to match his fingerprints to a lengthy arrest record. Like many people living on the streets, my father’s very existence was criminalized. He was often cited and jailed for “crimes” like sleeping in public, crimes of which he was the only victim.
As my day at the Bulb reminded me, my father’s story is sadly not unique. Many homeless people have physical or psychiatric disabilities that prevent them from finding or maintaining a job or support network. Some are disabled by criminal records, or by other traumatic experiences. Many of them rely on public assistance, which is grossly insufficient to cover even the lowest rents available in most California cities. As a society, we simply do not provide enough free or low-cost housing to shelter everyone who is currently homeless.
So the pressing question—the question that the East Bay Community Law Center has asked the Albany City Council and a federal court—is what will become of homeless people like my father and residents of the Bulb? Albany voted to evict the Bulb residents without offering them viable options. Albany does not have a permanent shelter, and the city has no plans to provide affordable housing for the Bulb residents, some of whom have been living there for many years.
The Albany Bulb litigation continues, and I feel fortunate to have played a small part in it. Beyond these local battles, we need a more systematic approach to addressing the causes and conditions of homelessness. One important step would be the enactment of the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, which was introduced in the California Legislature in 2012. The bill would end some of the most unjust treatment of homeless people by recognizing a range of basic rights to exist in public spaces.
Earlier this month, I drove to Los Angeles for the first time to visit the place where my father is buried. After his death, the coroner held his body for three months. My family lacked the resources to collect his body, so he was cremated by the city. We were never able to give him his own burial, and it turns out that the ashes of the unclaimed dead are buried together each year, comingled in a mass grave.
It struck me that, even in death, my father doesn’t have a place of his own. There is hardly any sign of his existence, just a rock marked “1997.” I am not especially sentimental about funerals or cemeteries, but the painful reality is that so many more homeless people will continue to suffer as he did in life, without any place that is theirs, and with their humanity undermined every day by the routine acts of pedestrians, police officers, and politicians. We can do better.
Pivoting our practice toward community-wide economic transformation
By Sean Betouliere
EBCLC’s Green-Collar Communities Clinic (GC3) clients range from a woman-owned home-based baking business, to a cooperatively-managed maker space in North Oakland, to a group which helps minority farmers bring healthy food to low-income neighborhoods. In each case, these projects have life-changing potential: faced with an economy dominated by employers who offer only part-time work and poverty pay, our clients are carving out their own opportunities for living wages and sustainable livelihoods.
What feels most promising about this work is that it is not dependent upon charity: our clients aim to create real, profitable businesses, and to provide their communities with valuable goods and services at competitive prices just like any other business would. However, instead of directing the profits of these enterprises into the pockets of an absentee owner or a group of far-flung shareholders, our clients are choosing to distribute them equitably among coworkers, and to reinvest that wealth where they live.
There is no question that for the people involved in and touched by these projects, they can be hugely transformative. However, they are also small-scale. Since starting work with the clinic this semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the wonderful work we’re doing could be expanded. Specifically: what would it take to transform not just individual household economies, but the economies of whole neighborhoods, cities, and regions?
The first answer is organizational expertise. We should take inspiration from Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES), a Bay Area nonprofit that helps low-income Latina immigrants form worker-owned green housecleaning cooperatives. As a business incubator, WAGES finds women interested in being worker-owners of a green housecleaning cooperative, provides them with the training, legal support, loans, planning, and technical assistance necessary to start their business, and then stays on to help manage and develop the new business as it works its way towards profitability. At that point, the nonprofit steps back from day-to-day operations, and the worker-owners of the new cooperative gradually repay the nonprofit out of a share of their sales. In this way, WAGES eliminates much of the risk and most of the structural barriers inherent in starting a new business, and the 95 worker-owners of its member cooperatives are able to earn $15 an hour with benefits while also exerting full control over their work-environment—all things that are otherwise unheard of in the housecleaning industry.
There’s no reason to think that this same model couldn’t be used to help workers in all sorts of traditionally-exploitative and low-paying industries get a fairer share of the profits they help produce. What works for housecleaners should also work for house painters, plumbers, electricians, day laborers, gardeners, home healthcare workers, hair stylists, and people in a long list of other industries. All that would be required would be a group of people willing to take on the benefits and burdens of worker-ownership, and a supporting organization that could offer some industry expertise, some training, some planning, some management, and some money.
Money, of course, is the other thing that all these budding businesses need. While worker-owned businesses don’t depend on charity, they do still depend—like everyone else—on start-up capital. Unfortunately, the low-income individuals who might benefit most from transitioning to worker-ownership are also the least-likely to have the personal assets needed to secure a business loan, and very few banks are willing to lend to an entity as strange and unfamiliar as a worker cooperative. This means that though a group of would-be worker-owners may be offering an excellent product or service, and have much of the experience, training, commitment, and support necessary to make their project a success, their plans could be derailed by an inability to access start-up capital.
One way to address this problem would be to establish and maintain a revolving loan fund dedicated to financing worker cooperatives and other locally-rooted, social-justice-oriented small businesses. Though some benevolent individual, business, or government entity would have to provide the fund with its initial pool of money, that pool could be maintained and expanded using a sort of “Pay it Forward” model: in essence, recipient businesses would be required to pay back what they borrowed, and to invest some small percentage of their own profits into the fund in perpetuity (which would then be paid back by future borrowers). In order to minimize the risk of defaults, borrowers could be required to partner with a Small Business Development Center, an incubating nonprofit like WAGES, or some other organization with a track record of planning and running successful businesses. A group in Richmond, California has already implemented a version of this scheme with the Richmond Worker Cooperative Loan Fund.
A second solution to the difficulty of matching developing businesses with dollars is to seek out partnerships between such businesses and anchor institutions: universities, hospitals, governments and other entities with a vested interest in the economic development of their community and a need for the small business’ services. Not only would the patronage of such institutions offer worker cooperatives and other locally-rooted businesses with a guaranteed customer base, but that base might, in turn, make otherwise-skittish traditional lenders more willing to lend. This model has been adopted most famously by Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, where local hospitals, universities, and government helped fund (and promised to patronize) a network of –worker cooperatives that includes a commercial laundry, an urban farm, and a solar-installation business—each owned by low-income residents from the surrounding community.
Such anchor institution/small-business/community win-win-win scenarios could be implemented here in the East Bay. Imagine, for instance, if the City of Oakland committed to buying food only from locally-owned businesses, or employing a worker-cooperative of low-income local residents to install solar panels on all its buildings.
GC3 is in conversation with other coalitions that are looking to make these dreams a reality. We’re currently in discussions with business developers who are working to create a cooperative incubator here in the East Bay. Though still in an early planning phase, this proposed project would offer low-income clients access to expert consulting, planning, and management services; low-interest capital; and free legal advice.
I believe that partnerships and integrated service models like this will lift GC3’s practice from individual entrepreneurial success stories to wide-scale community change. Such a strategy can produce the healthy, secure, hopeful and productive region that EBCLC seeks to foster.
Sean Betouliere is a GC3 law clerk and second year law student at Berkeley Law.
Investment, Not Charity
By Nana Duffuor
I came to EBCLC’s Development Fellow position wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, and utterly clueless. Though I had some experience working at non-profits, I had very limited knowledge of how they were funded or what work went into keeping an organization like EBCLC afloat—but I was curious.
Just days before I started work, I told my neighbor about my new position in development and fundraising. Having never worked with non-profits, he looked at me blankly. “So what? Like, you ask people for money?”
He isn’t necessarily wrong, although I would have used more flowery language. Nevertheless, in one way or another, that’s a large part of what we do. For me, exploring the “art of the ask” has proven to be much more of a hurdle than I thought it would be.
Raised in a Ghanaian household, I was taught very early on that it was improper to talk to people about money. I’ve always understood money discussions as extremely personal and uncomfortable subject matter, and to talk with people—particularly people who are not a part of one’s close family—about their money is certainly taboo. So in my role as Development Fellow, whether it was approaching an institution or an individual, I always felt timid about requesting financial support and being explicit about it.
One year into my fellowship my viewpoint has changed drastically, and here’s why:
At EBCLC, I have the great pleasure of sitting next to the famous Gracie Jones, EBCLC’s Housing Intake Specialist, whose vivacious personality is made up of equal parts empathy and tenacity. As her cubicle neighbor, I have seen her work with clients who are in very tough times. For example, I remember the day when a client came to her in tears, revealing that she was contemplating suicide because she had gotten so behind in paying rent to continue living in utterly unlivable housing conditions to begin with.
On another occasion I witnessed a young mother come to our office overwhelmed with worry because she had moved across the country to the Bay Area, full of optimism, only to find herself homeless and sleeping in a car with her three small children.
Yet, as much as I’ve seen clients come to Gracie in despair, I’ve also seen clients breathe deep sighs of relief and enjoy the first moment of solace in quite some time upon hearing that Gracie has secured for them safe, affordable housing. As I sit at my desk beside hers, processing donations, writing grant proposals, or doing data entry, I have a close and constant reminder of what it’s all for.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend a panel at Boalt about repealing California’s Maximum Family Grant (MFG) Rule. The rule stipulates that parents receiving assistance through the CalWORKS program may not receive a grant for any child born to the household while any member of the household is already receiving aid. In effect, the rule limits the reproductive choices of poor women while endangering the lives of children in poverty by denying desperately needed aid to them and their families.
The panel was made up of a group of women from various organizations, all working in collaboration to repeal this unjust policy. They spoke with clarity and conviction about the MFG rule and how the law they were proposing, Assembly Bill 271, would help to remedy this injustice.
What struck me most, however, was an EBCLC client, a mother of three, who took a seat before a room full of strangers and—with the sound of her children playing and her newborn baby crying in the background—shared with us in detail her painful history of sexual and physical abuse, depression, and economic hardship. She also shared with us her aspirations—her desire for opportunity for her and her children—and what the repeal of the MFG rule would mean for all of them.
I was extremely humbled to learn that just days prior to attending the panel she had traveled to Sacramento, sat in front of state lawmakers and shared that very same story. Without fear of judgment she recounted her personal struggles, failures, and accomplishments, and she articulated exactly why her family deserves a life of justice and dignity under the law.
When I think about the link between my work in fundraising and the amazing program work that happens day in and day out at EBCLC—whether it’s helping people find safe housing, or supporting clients in advocating for policies that will affect their lives and the lives of others—I find that the common thread is that we are all asking of ourselves and others to invest in a just society in the ways in which we each are able.
For the client who so bravely stood in front of our California state lawmakers, that doesn’t mean making a $1,000 donation to EBCLC, but trekking to the state capital with three small children in tow to speak truth to powers that are often distanced from the human beings their policies impact.
For the staff at EBCLC it often means going above and beyond the call of duty on behalf of their clients, doing everything from working countless overtime hours to physically helping clients clean out their homes so that they won’t be evicted.
And, for many of the individuals and institutions that I interact with, it means making a financial investment in the work of EBCLC because they understand that our rights, our resources and our destinies are intrinsically linked.
That’s not charity. It’s an investment.
Nana Duffuor is EBCLC’s Development Fellow.
Justice For Us
By Marcy Sheiner
I might have mentioned somewhere on my blog that I’ve been having some disagreements—to put it in the mildest possible terms—with Social Services. I’m retired and I get Social Security, Medicare, and sometimes other benefits depending on how much work I have from month to month. You freelancers out there know how it goes: work and income go up and down in our biz. The people who work for Social Services, however, don’t seem to get the concept of freelance—and they really don’t get the phrase freelance writer. Years ago I had some sort of formal thing I hardly remember, with a hearing and a judge who kept asking, utterly baffled, what this writing was that I did. After trying to explain and unable to get through, I finally burst out, “You know when you go to the dentist? And there are magazines on the table? Well—somebody writes what’s in those magazines!”
So you get the picture. I’ve been having some disagreements about which I won’t go into detail, since these things tend to be boring and confusing. It’s been going on, however, since January, and the level of communication was at a low point. I went to an organization that was—to use another mild term—unhelpful—except in one sense: it had tons of flyers and announcements all over its walls and tables. One caught my eye, about a project of the East Bay Community Law Center: a Public Benefits Justice Clinic. It read, in part:
From the way it was presented I assumed this was a new service, and further assumed they’d seen a growing need for it as the so-called safety net of Alameda County, the State of California and the Nation of the 99% has become more and more frayed. Social Service programs are throwing people off the rolls left and right. While I didn’t have high hopes they’d be able to help me, considering my experience thus far, I nonetheless went to the Justice Clinic yesterday.
You know how most services these days tell you they’ll make calls for you and get back to you in a week? No such BS went on at the Justice Clinic. I was interviewed by a legal intern—and though my rush-to-judgment self was at first dismayed that M., adorable though she was, was not an experienced attorney, she turned out to be kind, smart, and fully competent. She let me tell my story from Day One to the present, let me cry and curse and refer to imminent suicide without once becoming alarmed or horrified or telling me “I need for you to calm down,” the way people in her position usually do. When I was finished—and she waited to be sure I was completely finished—she went off to make copies of my voluminous file, leaving me to compose myself with my Jane Austen book. She returned and said she thought the situation was relatively simple! (On my last visit to Social Services, the appeals officer and her supervisor looked over my case and confessed it was too complicated for them, yet to this young, enthusiastic legal intern, it was relatively simple). She said she was going to make phone calls, and asked me to be patient and wait.
I should mention that the room I was in was done up Non-Profit Style, on the edge of shabby, crowded with desks, mismatched flea market chairs, and a large oblong table, with workers and clients scattered about, where conversations could be heard—but most people were too wrapped up in their own troubles to eavesdrop. When left to my own devices, however, I did just that, and heard workers making calls for clients, speaking confidently and competently to people in authority about hairy situations. I couldn’t make out any cohesive stories—but the point is, that these people get right to the work at hand is in itself impressive. Think about it: who does that these days? What organizations or institutions go to work on a case immediately after it’s presented to them, without so much as a cup of coffee first?
I waited almost two hours, nodding off in Ye Olde England, until M. came back with notes and reassurances for me, the upshot of which was that everything was resolved! Resolved! All was, this very day, to go back to the way it was, the way it should have stayed, without these “disagreements.” My first instinct was to touch her shoulder and say, “You’re great!” I asked how she’d gotten through to them, and she laughed and said “Do you mean literally or figuratively?” I actually meant literally: rarely have I ever called any worker at Social Services and gotten them on the phone: I usually have to leave a message that is returned about 50% of the time. Sometimes the phone system won’t accept messages. Or it’s broken down and does weird things like buzz or beep. M. told me she’d made many, many calls until she got someone higher up than anyone I’d spoken to all these many months.
My next thought was that she’d been lied to, the way I’ve been repeatedly lied to all this time. So while admiring and appreciating M. and the organization, I still carry a bit of skepticism in my heart. At this point, one of the things M. was promised has been done, which bodes well for the rest of it—but I won’t know for sure until the beginning of the month when my Social Security check comes, hopefully intact. Should that happy event materialize, I’ll sing unreserved praises for the East Bay Community Law Center. For now I’m singing their praises anyhow, just for the way they treated me and the way they work. Anyone out there who needs help with Social Services or other legal issues, I highly recommend them. Call first for hours and an appointment. Praise be to competent people with ethics!
East Bay Community Law Center
Public Benefits Justice Clinic
3130 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94705
(510) 548 – 4064
THANK YOU EAST BAY COMMUNITY LAW CENTER!!!!!!!!
Marcy Sheiner is a freelance writer. She published this story on her blog, Dirty Laundry.
My Brother Could Not Wait
By Michael Ng
Michael Ng wrote this piece in loving memory of his brother, Osvaldo, who died May 29th, 2013.
My brother committed suicide last week.
Osvaldo was a talented painter and a sharp wit. He was a brother, a son and a loving uncle to sixteen nieces and nephews.
He was also an undocumented immigrant. And in the end, this became all that mattered.
Osvaldo was born in the rough northern Mexican city of Culiacán. He had a happy early childhood spent running through the streets with his friends. By his own account, he was outgoing and brave; he told us that he once mouthed off about one of the local narcotraficantes and was hauled in by his henchmen.
When he was thirteen he was hit by a truck speeding down the steep hill outside his house. The accident severed his spine, paralyzing both legs and leaving him without the use of his right hand. Osvaldo came to the United States on a medical visa for treatment. While he was undergoing his treatment, his mother died, leaving him in a foreign country without a parent or caretaker, and without a home to return to.
My family adopted Osvaldo when he was sixteen. He continued his rehabilitation, attended high school, learned English, and began to paint. Art was an outlet for Osvaldo, his way of coping with disability. His early works drew from his heritage, splashy luchadores and depictions of obscure Sinaloan folk legends. Those evolved into abstract figures, portraiture and symbolic works tackling political issues. Toward the end, he painted snapshots of the unnoticed beauty in everyday scenes—leaves scattered across wet asphalt; telephone lines tangled against an orange sky.
Adoption gave Osvaldo a new family, but not legal immigration status. Although he was a minor, he was too old for an adoptee’s green card, and his orphan status was rejected because he entered the country legally. However, our lawyers said that if he waited a few years he could apply for a discretionary exemption. Given his situation and our family’s ability to provide for him, we were reassured that it would almost certainly be granted.
He waited the due time, and submitted his application. But by then the law had changed, and required that he submit himself for detention and deportation before applying for an exemption. Osvaldo withdrew his application, and began an indefinite wait for the law to change.
While the rest of us went off to college or jobs, traveled the world, and started families, he remained at my parents’ house. He kept painting but refused to risk art school or apply for a job. He believed, perhaps rightfully so, that he would not survive deportation back to a country where he had nothing and no one, where he faced dismal prospects as a severely disabled man.
In the early years, he could travel domestically. He flew to the East Coast and we drove across the country together, visiting sights like Yellowstone that found their way into his art. But after September 11 air travel became impossible, and his world became smaller. In the end, he became afraid of even the short train trip to San Francisco.
He retreated, spending most of his time in his room, painting. Finally, even with the brightest prospects for the immigration reform in decades, he lost hope. He took his life, leaving a note saying that he had waited nineteen years, and could not continue to wait even another year.
He came here legally, as a child. He stayed because he had no other option, but also because he was promised that our laws would allow him to do so. He educated himself, learned our language, and prepared himself for a productive life—a rich life in which he would have contributed richly to our community and our culture. When political vagaries took away that right, he waited, because this country was his home, and we were his family.
He waited for change. He waited as he listened to the ugly words of our political leaders, telling him he had broken the rules and that the only life he knew was stolen from those fortunate enough to have been born here. He waited as long as he could, and then he could wait no longer.
Our immigration laws are deeply disconnected from the realities lived by my brother, and by the eleven million other undocumented human beings among us in the United States. They must change, and must change now. With every day that passes, change comes too late for some of them.
We cannot keep waiting.
Michael Ng serves as Secretary in EBCLC’s Board of Directors. He wrote this piece on June 6th, 2013, in loving memory of his brother, Osvaldo.
Originally posted on Daily Kos.
“Why am I in jail and Zimmerman is free?”
The Trayvon Martin Case & the Juvenile Justice System
Soon after the George Zimmerman verdict, one of our young clients, whom I will call “J.P.,” was jailed in Alameda County Juvenile Hall after pleading guilty to a minor probation violation. In the Juvenile Hall visiting room J.P. asked, “why am I in jail and Zimmerman is free?” We could have given him the easy and legally accurate answer, namely, that a jury found Zimmerman not guilty while J.P. had pleaded guilty to violating a court order. But that was not J.P.’s question. He wanted to know why it felt like the laws that protected Zimmerman, an older, light-skinned man who killed an unarmed black teenager, from going to jail did not protect him, a young black man with one probation violation, in the same way.
Last summer, the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) started the Youth Defender Clinic, a program that advocates for young people at the intersection of the juvenile justice and education systems in Alameda County. As an attorney in the Clinic, I represent young men and women in both delinquency and school expulsion cases. EBCLC is also part of the Clinical Program at U.C. Berkeley Law School (Boalt Hall) and half of my job is teaching, training and supervising law students. Together, we spend every day zealously defending young people in the juvenile justice system. Almost all of our clients are charged with low-level, non-violent offenses and almost all of them are black or Latino.
Our clients know, as does anyone who works in the criminal justice system, that the system is far from color-blind. Just the opposite: skin color predicts, among other things, whether we are stopped by the police, whether we are arrested on marijuana charges, how long we are sentenced to prison, and whether we receive a death sentence .
We can look narrowly at the Zimmerman trial and recognize how the jury’s verdict may have been legally correct in light of the evidence presented at trial, the prosecution’s failure to vigorously argue that Zimmerman was the first aggressor, and the governing Florida law. But like many criminal trials, this one did not actually arrive at the truth of what happened. The truth is that had Zimmerman been black and Trayvon Martin white, Zimmerman would probably have been found guilty. As John Roman of the Urban Institute has explained, “the odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.”
As criminal trials go, Zimmerman’s was like a unicorn within the criminal justice system – it was an unusual case with a lot of press, a lot of scrutiny and a large team of highly paid defense lawyers working around the clock on Zimmerman’s behalf. This is not how most criminal cases unfold. Had Zimmerman been poor and not in the national spotlight, it is unlikely he would have been released pretrial on electronic monitoring. Instead, he would have been jailed and appointed a public defender. Even the brightest and most hardworking public defenders often work under impossible conditions – juggling hundreds of cases, long hours and little pay. Had Zimmerman been poor and black, he would have faced the additional challenge of the implicit racial biases of the nearly all-white jury, not to mention, the prosecutorial misconduct and the sloppy police work present in the case. The result had Zimmerman been black and poor and his victim white: an almost certain conviction.
When J.P. asked us his question in the jail visiting room, he was asking it rhetorically. We all knew the answer: race. Zimmerman presented to the jury as white. This may also explain why Zimmerman wasn’t even charged until six weeks after the shooting. On a daily basis, our clients experience the law in a way that is completely foreign to the way that Zimmerman experienced the law.
Our clients experience the law much more like the way Trayvon Martin experienced the law. On the one hand, Trayvon is very different from our clients: he never faced criminal charges. But in other significant ways, he is very similar to our clients. Trayvon, like many of our clients, had been suspended from school. Indeed, the only reason he was visiting his father that day was that he was suspended from school after officials searched him and found a plastic bag with traces of marijuana inside. It is unlikely that this type of infraction – if it can even be called that – would have triggered a suspension had Trayvon been white. It is precisely these types of biases that help explain why the jury saw Trayvon as a mad and violent young black man – and this is also how our clients are often viewed.
Most profoundly, J.P.’s question pointed out how the life of a young black man – like his and Trayvon’s – is less valued than that of a man like George Zimmerman. In J.P.’s eyes, the laws that allowed Zimmerman to be acquitted do not apply to, or protect, him and Trayvon in the same way. This is not news for our clients, or anyone who has worked in the criminal justice system. But that doesn’t make it any less unjust and maddening. Our law students and I are channeling our outrage to fight that much harder for each client, but also to push for more systemic change and a national conversation about the vast racial disparities within the criminal justice system.
Kate Weisburd is Director of EBCLC’s Youth Defender Clinic.