Initiative allows inmates to work toward law degree while behind bars

Editor's note: The PBS NewsHour incorrectly described the crime for which incarcerated student Maureen Onyelobi has served prison time — it was for her role in a murder instigated by her boyfriend, not one he physically committed.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration based on population. Part of it is due to an overwhelmed, underfunded system in both prosecutors' and public defenders' offices. As Fred de Sam Lazaro reports, one initiative is trying to bring more legal resources to those incarcerated or facing trial. It's part of our series Agents for Change and Searching for Justice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States has the highest rate of incarceration based on population, due in part to an overwhelmed, underfunded system in the offices of both prosecutors and especially public defenders.

    As Fred de Sam Lazaro reports, one initiative is trying to bring more legal resources to those incarcerated or facing trial.

    It's part of his Agents For Change series and our ongoing series Searching for Justice.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It is not unusual post-COVID to see hybrid classes, students in person, students online.

    What is unusual is who the two distance learners are in this first-year law class. Maureen Onyelobi and Jeff Young are each serving life sentences in Minnesota prisons for aiding and abetting murder in separate cases, the first students ever allowed to pursue a juris doctorate from behind bars.

    What's toughest about attending law school from prison?

  • Jeff Young, Law Student:

    Law school is just tough. Learning how to read case law takes a little while. My speed is a little bit slower. And that gets frustrating.

    I think one of the other things is not having the opportunity to speak with classmates outside of class.

  • Maureen Onyelobi, Law Student:

    I'm just happy that I'm able to continue and good grades. I'm getting A's and B's. I got a C. But I'm doing it.

  • Speaker:

    But, Jeff, you had the third part.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The pandemic cracked open the door to full-time online law school, which wasn't allowed for anyone until 2020.

    And one result is an initiative called The Legal Revolution, which kicked off with a gala celebration last summer.

  • Speaker:

    We are building on momentum.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The program got waivers from the American Bar Association to admit two incarcerated students per year into law school. They got funding from law firms and foundations and the green light from Minnesota's Corrections Department.

  • Maureen Onyelobi:

    I first heard about the prison law pipeline almost two-and-a-half years ago, and I'm so proud and so honored to be a part of The Legal Revolution.

    One special guest at the gala was Albert Woodfox.

  • Albert Woodfox, Won Release:

    I spent 44 years and 10 months in solitary confinement.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Woodfox, who died just weeks later, said studying the law while in Louisiana's Angola Penitentiary helped him eventually win release after a wrongful murder conviction.

  • Elizer Darris, Co-Founder, The Legal Revolution:

    I have been hearing about you all basically my whole life.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    With 38-year-old Elizer Darris, a leader of The Minnesota Initiative, there was a shared and rare experience.

  • Elizer Darris:

    I heard the judge say, "I sentence you to spend the rest of your natural life in the care of the Commission of Corrections."

    I know the gravity of those words.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    He heard those words at age 15, ending, among other things, any dreams of playing football.

  • Elizer Darris:

    I was arrested for a really serious offense. I took part in a large fight in which someone lost his life. And I played a part in that.

    If you are certified as an adult to face these types of offenses, it doesn't matter if you're 15. You're put in immediately with the other adults in the adult prison.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    While judicial activists have campaigned to protect and separate young inmates from adults, Darris says, in his case, some of those adults became mentors, pushing him to get his GED, to study the law books, advocating far more, he says, than his public defender attorneys.

  • Elizer Darris:

    They would give me books and say, hey, youngster, read this book, and then come back and talk to me about it.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    He read exhaustively, but what he couldn't do is convince his court-appointed attorneys that there was an issue with a key witness' credibility.

  • Elizer Darris:

    I was laughed at. And I also said it to my public defender on appeal: I think this is an issue.

    And I was disagreed with. There was, like, a consistent pressure to take plea bargains.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Finally, he says a new attorney did take his legal reasoning seriously, and brought it successfully before Minnesota's Supreme Court, which reversed his life sentence. He served 17 years.

  • Elizer Darris:

    If I wouldn't have put forth my own reasoning, I probably wouldn't be sitting in front of you right now. I don't know where I would be today.

  • Emily Hunt Turner, Founder, The Legal Revolution:

    Some of the best legal talent in the world is sitting behind bars right now. And our discipline deeply needs them and their voices.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Nowhere more than in public defender offices, says Emily Hunt Turner, an attorney and founder of The Legal Revolution project.

  • Emily Hunt Turner:

    I don't know any public defender that will not own up to the fact that they are — they have more on their plates than any human being can handle.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    For the incarcerated students, graduating with a law degree is no guarantee they will get a license to actually practice law. A few states have outright bans that prohibit anyone with a felony from being admitted to the bar.

    In Minnesota, they must go before a state board of law examiners and make the case that they have the appropriate character and fitness to practice law.

    Maureen Onyelobi's more immediate task is to make that case at a parole hearing next summer. She's spent eight years in prison so far for her role in a murder committed by her boyfriend. That two drove together to the victim's home, but Onyelobi insists she had no idea of her boyfriend's intent.

  • Maureen Onyelobi:

    I was dating a man. He was a drug dealer. I fell in love, and a terrible crime happened.

    The law sees me as the principal. I have never been charged with any violent crime. I never had a felony before I got here.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Her appeals have been rejected several times in the courts. Onyelobi says, for now, she's focused on lesser rewards, passing the law school entrance exam and the academic rigor of the years ahead.

  • Maureen Onyelobi:

    I don't know if I will be able to practice as a lawyer. But if you told me 10 years ago I'd be going to law school, I would say that's unlikely. So, there's no telling what can happen years from now.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    For his part Mitchell Hamline Law School dean Anthony Niedwiecki says the incarcerated students were vetted like all others for their academic qualifications.

  • Anthony Niedwiecki, Dean, Mitchell Hamline Law School:

    We want to make sure we're bring in people that have remorse, that are actually going to use the law degree in a way that's productive, both for them individually, but also for the justice system and for society overall.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Were you to get a chance to communicate with the victim's family, what would your message be?

  • Maureen Onyelobi:

    It would just be that I'm sorry, but there's nothing I could do to take back the things that happened.

    And it's just — it's just really hard, because I don't want to be associated with that, but I am. And I'm just sorry.

  • Emily Hunt Turner:

    Yes, criminality is a real thing. And, yes, I understand that accountability and all that plays in.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    But Emily Hunt Turner says it's important to take a holistic view of the program's goals.

  • Emily Hunt Turner:

    At the end of the day, education and being in community, being in relationships are through and through proven to be the best mode of transformation.

    So, if we're really talking about public safety, the investment of those who have ended up behind bars is one of the most promising ways to really talk about transformation and safety.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    For her group, the next step is opening a law firm, which would employ, among others, graduates of its prison legal education program.

    It could be a destination for Jeff Young and Maureen Onyelobi after law school, and, they can only hope, after successful appeals for commuted sentences.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Shakopee, Minnesota.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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