CUNY Defenders Go Where Most Lawyers Rarely Venture

By David Brand

The drive to Dannemora, the upstate hamlet that contains the Clinton Correctional Facility, can take seven hours. The ride to Attica can take eight.

But those distances don’t stop students in the CUNY Law Criminal Defense Clinic from gassing up their cars and heading to the Canadian border to meet with the clients they represent, says clinic director Steven Zeidman.

“It’s a credit to our students,” Zeidman said. “ Because it’s critical for them to meet face-to-face with the people they’re representing, but I don’t have to tell them that. They’re ready to go.”

Not only do the students travel to the distant prisons, they typically pay for their own accommodations once they get there, further reflecting their commitment to their clients.

 CUNY Law Criminal Defense Clinic Director Steven Zeidman // Photo courtesy of CUNY Law

CUNY Law Criminal Defense Clinic Director Steven Zeidman // Photo courtesy of CUNY Law

Like many law school-based defense clinics, CUNY Law students represent clients facing misdemeanor criminal charges. For CUNY Defenders, that means counseling individuals in Queens Criminal Court.

In recent years, however, the clinic’s the mission has expanded, Zeidman said. Students now represent people who are detained at jails on Rikers Island and incarcerated in upstate prisons—including facilities much closer to Montreal and Toronto than to the Long Island City campus.

“It’s a lot to take on for our students,” Zeidman said.

After the clinic began working with inmates, staff and students started to grasp the extent of a statewide solitary confinement crisis, Zeidman said. Clients were serving long stints in isolation, sometimes locked in their cells for 23 hours a day for years at a time. The clinic began to confront this issue and advocate for more effective solitary confinement regulations.

In October 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would enact new rules and reporting guidelines that require jails to allow individuals in solitary confinement to leave their cells for at least four hours a day.

Local jails are also required to report any decision that places an individual in solitary confinement for more than a month, any instance where a child is placed in solitary confinement and any time that certain services are restricted or denied by a jail.

Problems persist, however.

Though New York City banned solitary confinement for jail detainees under age 22 more than three years ago, a recent report by the New York Times revealed that the city often ships young inmates to jails outside the city that continue to lock dozens of New York City teens and young adults in isolation.

Though the clinic’s work on behalf of people unjustly detained in solitary confinement continues, the experience with incarcerated and jailed clients opened up new avenues of practice for the staff and students, Zeidman said.

“It led us to this whole other area so now we’re investing more than half of our time in the coming semester helping people who have been denied parole,” he said.

Last year, Zeidman held workshops for inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining where staff and students discussed inmates’ rights regarding parole. Zeidman said the warden welcomed the staff and students and the workshops attracted 300 people over two nights.

For many inmates, parole is the only hope to ever leave prison. But it’s a long shot.

The parole board is composed of 12 commissioners — out of a possible 19 — who consider about 12,000 cases every year. Prison reform advocates say the commission is not just short-staffed — several of the commissioners are unqualified or predisposed to deny parole applications, they say.

An even longer shot for release: clemency from Cuomo. Clemency is the only chance of freedom for people serving life sentences.

Nationwide in 2016, more than 161,000 people were serving life sentences or virtual life sentences — prison terms that exceed life expectancy — according to a report by the Sentencing Project.

Roughly one out of every five inmates in New York — nearly 10,000 total people — are incarcerated for life. That is the third highest number of life sentences in the country after California and Louisiana.

In the face of such an overwhelming challenge, the CUNY Law defenders have made clemency their mission. The clinic currently represents 15 people seeking clemency from the governor.

Most of the clients are older adults, but two are men in their forties who were convicted and sentenced to virtual life sentences when they were just 18, Zeidman said.

“They have the support of virtually everyone in prison and that includes the administrators, staff and volunteers,” Zeidman said. “But they will die in prison unless the governor grants them clemency.”

So far, two clinic clients have had their sentences commuted or have been granted clemency.

One was a woman sentenced to 75 years. She had served 36 years when the governor commuted her sentence to a minimum of 36 years, which enabled her to become eligible for parole.

The other client was an Indian man convicted of murder and who faced deportation if he were ever released. After he served 20 years in a prison, the governor granted him clemency and he was immediately deported to India.

Zeidman said students benefit from their exposure to clients locked away in far flung facilities because they learn the realities of the criminal justice system and can better relate to the families of inmates.

“[By traveling for meetings], students experience what their clients’ families have to go through to maintain family ties, he said. “It’s not easy to do when they’re at the Canadian border.”

Students who are committed to overhauling the criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration also learn to work with people convicted of violent crimes — not just low-level offenders who are more sympathetic figures, Zeidman said.

“We have a lot of students who want to represent poor people accused of crimes and they grapple with the fact that these are not just [people convicted for] marijuana sales,” he said. “They are real people with real lives and they all have capacity to change.”