‘Working on a genuine crisis’: Law students address COVID-19 spread in prisons

Federal Criminal Justice Clinic helps clients seeking compassionate release due to pandemic

During a one-week period in April, Elisabeth Mayer helped write 63 pages of motions aimed at convincing a federal judge to grant compassionate release to a 65-year-old man at FCI Butner—a prison in North Carolina experiencing one of the federal system’s biggest coronavirus outbreaks. 

For six to 10 hours a day, the University of Chicago Law School student researched, wrote and revised.

The stakes were high: COVID-19 was spreading quickly at Butner—50 inmates and 27 staff had been infected by April 20, and five had died—and Mayer’s client was particularly vulnerable. The man, who had served more than 80% of a 40-month sentence for fraud, had a long history of viral pneumonia and was still recuperating from his latest bout. Recent tests suggested that he likely had prostate cancer too.

Working as part of the Law School’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, Mayer closely monitored rising illness numbers and evolving government guidance. As the case progressed, FCJC director Alison Siegler and associate director Erica Zunkel filed the briefs in rapid succession: a 30-page emergency motion on April 15; a nine-page status report and prison release plan on April 16; a 15-page supplemental brief on April 17; and a nine-page update on April 20.

This was a staggering pace—even by the rigorous standards of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, the only legal clinic in the country exclusively representing indigent clients charged with federal felonies. 

“I've worked under pressure before, but this was different,” said Mayer, a third-year student who also kept up with two other classes. “Working on a genuine crisis is different than studying for an exam or even from other litigation projects I’ve worked on.”

Assigned to the case at the beginning of April, Mayer had days rather than weeks to get up to speed, and sometimes only a day to reply to the court. Two second-year classmates, David Silberthau and Alex Aparicio, provided research and support while also working on other cases.

“Usually we handle an individual case from start to finish, so although we typically have really busy periods, cases have a chance to evolve over time,” said Zunkel, an associate clinical professor who along with Siegler is overseeing six coronavirus-related compassionate release cases this quarter.

“Now we’re asking our students to become intimately familiar with cases that have already been completely litigated. They need to read all the pre-sentence reports and the filings and, in some cases, reach out to family members and friends to determine a release plan. It’s a huge amount of work in a very short period of time.”

The project was part of a quick pivot by Siegler, who founded the clinic in 2008, and Zunkel, who joined in 2012. As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, urgent needs emerged in the federal criminal justice system just as other clinic projects were postponed, including a federal trial that had been set for May.

Siegler and Zunkel assessed students’ preferences and then divided them into two groups: 11 would form a COVID-19 response team, and another six would continue working on existing projects, supervised by Judith Miller, an associate clinical professor in the clinic.

“We needed to acknowledge that we were in a whole new environment that was creating massive hardships for people in the federal criminal system,” said Siegler, a clinical professor of law. “We thought about where we could be most useful, and what would give our students the best pedagogical experience.”

The students started by digging through court records, looking for mentions of health issues that could lead to serious complications from COVID-19. They also considered how fast the virus was spreading at various Bureau of Prisons facilities.

The clinic agreed to take on six cases. From the start, they confronted a variety of challenges, from sending faxes without access to a fax machine, to contacting clients in locked-down facilities, to gathering information without in-person meetings. 

“Often, we’re getting information second- and third-hand through family members,” said Aparicio, whose primary client is incarcerated at a private facility in Michigan without access to email. 

Although Aparicio and the rest of the team can schedule calls through the facility, each call requires their client to come into contact with both prison staff and, of course, the phone. Every time they needed information from their client, they had to weigh the risk to his health.

Quarantine policies at Butner created an extra layer of frustration. Even once the judge recommended that the client be transferred to home confinement—an alternative to compassionate release—the Bureau of Prisons mandated that he remain in quarantine at the prison for 14 days before release. But shortly after the order, others in quarantine developed symptoms of COVID-19. The clock restarted.

The FCJC’s client, Richard Thompson, was ultimately transferred to home confinement on April 29.

A few days later, Thompson wrote a letter to the executive director of the Chicago Federal Defender Program expressing his gratitude for the connection to Siegler and Zunkel.

"Their assistance, persistence, and relentless advocacy allowed me to be writing you this letter from the safety of the home to which I have been released," he wrote. "They were truly phenomenal. Clearly my Judge intervened to get me out, but Alison and Erica provided crucial details in a manner which allowed him to understand the situation at Butner and take action. What they accomplished was nothing short of a miracle."

The work has given Siegler and Zunkel a chance to see their students rise to unexpected challenges. The crisis, they added, has also underscored the need for criminal justice reform, particularly in regard to combatting mass incarceration.

“This is something Alison and I have been advocating for our entire careers: People are receiving sentences that are draconian and much too long,” Zunkel said. “I hope this pandemic is going to teach us that we don’t have to do that in order to protect public safety. We don’t need people who are over 65 and have serious health problems serve their last, dying days in prison.

“It doesn’t help them, it’s not humane, and it doesn’t make our society safer.”

—This story was first published on the University of Chicago Law School website.