2021 Marutani Essay - Tue Ho
My summer at Amistad Law Project
This summer, I was fortunate enough to be a Marutani Fellow to support my amazing experience at the Amistad Law Project. Amistad is a civil rights organization that specializes in prisoner advocacy. Amistad was named after the 1839 Amistad Rebellion, where fifty-three people rose up and defeated their captors after being purchased and placed on a Caribbean-bound slave ship. Afterwards they were taken to the U.S, tried in court, and acquitted. Amistad also means "friendship" in Spanish, and the organization seeks to honor this legacy of resistance, while grounded with a strong connection to the community.
At Amistad, I learned how organizations are strategically using movement lawyering to make change. Movement Lawyering is the belief that social change happens when people take collective action to transform power. It is lawyering that supports and advances social movements, defined as the building and exercise of collective power, led by the most directly impacted, to achieve systemic institutional and cultural change. Thus, Amistad not only litigates for the rights of incarcerated people to end Mass Incarceration, they also organizes for liberation as a leading member in the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI), seeking to build the leadership of people from communities harmed by the criminal legal system. Additionally, they wage strategic campaigns to divest from policing and prisons, hoping to invest instead in communities. Their current campaigns include #FreeTheVulnerable during the pandemic, abolishing death by incarceration to end mandatory life without parole sentences, and advocating for second chances at the Board of Pardons for incarcerated people who have turned around their lives.
At Amistad, I personally worked with clients on their communication applications, engaged in legal research and writing on first amendment rights and ADA protections in the prison context, and I worked with Amistad's media team to support their Move It Forward podcast, a platform that shares perspectives and lifts up the voices of community members impacted by the carceral state.
Learning about commutations was especially impactful. In most states, after you receive a life sentence, you become eligible to meet with a parole board after 15, 20, or 25 years. For incarcerated persons serving a lifetime sentence without parole in PA, commutation is their only option for a second chance. The commutation process is an application to the five member Board of Pardons (BOP), which meet a few times a year to review commutation applications. Before the 1970s "tough on crime" reforms, commutation only required a majority vote. It was common for the BOP to grant commutation to reformed, sick, or elderly incarcerated individuals who no longer posed a risk as an act of mercy. After the "tough on crime" reforms, the commutation process now requires unanimous support from the BOP. Thus, from the 1970s to 2018, only 5 individuals were granted commutation among thousands of applications. However, recent years have seen a shift in the BOP belief in commutations, granting 34 commutations in the past 2 years. Amistad hopes to continue this trend.
The most rewarding work I did this summer was with clients and their commutation applications. My tasks include interviewing incarcerated individuals, telling them about the commutation process, learning their stories, gathering their materials, and preparing the application. I interviewed my clients over the phone, as well as in person. These were important learning experiences for me. Up until then, I had never spoken with an incarcerated person before, never mind seeing a prison. I was nervous to see how my preconceptions would make me feel, or impact my work. But with each visitation and conversation, I felt my preconceptions rescind, replaced with an empathy for the humanity I was privileged to be in relationship. These conversations fueled me through all my work at Amistad, and continues to fuel me as I stay connected to Amistad and continue to work with my commutation clients even after my internship.
The learning experiences at Amistad were wide ranging and numerous. Equally as educational were the weekly brown bag lunches organized by Law For Black Lives. Law For Black Lives is a Black femme-led national network of over 6,000 movement lawyers and legal workers, of which Amistad is a partner. I was fortunate enough to hear from lawyers who are developing innovative lawyering strategies across the nation. Specifically, I was exposed to ideas of Solidarity Economics, a strategy that promotes collective economic models such as community land trusts, housing co-ops, worker-owned factories, consumer-owned groceries, and other joint/collective ownership models. I was particularly interested in the evolving ideas of local currency, such as time banks, timeshares, and how communities are participating in a completely separate local currency that commits people to shop locally. Through these weekly presentations, I learned of the varied ways lawyers can be involved in innovative change, such as hosting community legal training, advocating for policy reform, creating business entities, overseeing business conversions, drafting governance documents, tax exemption applications, and providing industry-specific legal advice.
My learning experiences this summer affirmed my belief in movement lawyering. More than any class I've had so far, this summer expanded my understanding of the different roles and tasks lawyers engage in to better serve client, and community needs. I am grateful to APABA-PA's Marutani Fellowship for supporting my educational experiences, while also welcoming me into their network and community. I am looking forward to further connecting with APABA-PA and the larger Philadelphia legal community, as I continue my journey into movement lawyering.