SLS students bridge the gap between the classroom and prisons

Oct. 2, 2023, 10:32 p.m.

As mass incarceration rates remain a prevalent issue in the United States, Stanford graduate school programs are working to reduce prison populations in California through legislative reform and reentry services.

The U.S. prison population started to grow during the 1970s, and exploded the following decade when the Reagan administration undertook a “war on drugs” that doubled the number of incarcerated individuals. Now, America criminalizes more people than any other country, with more than 2 million individuals incarcerated at any moment — a 500% increase since 1970.

A 2011 Supreme Court decision ruled that overcrowding in California’s prisons caused issues of limited access to mental and physical health care, constituting cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. 

“All of the living conditions were so poor that people were being stacked up like sardines in this environment, which made it incredibly dangerous,” said Susan Champion J.D. ’11, deputy director of the Three Strikes Program at Stanford.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the majority of America’s prison population consists of poor people of color, who are disproportionately targeted by the law and lack adequate representation. Three-quarters of the 650,000 individuals who are released from prison every year will also return to prison within just five years, according to the ACLU, largely due to the legal restrictions and barriers that they face in education, employment and housing.

Students at the Three Strikes Project hope to improve resources for individuals convicted of a crime and create reentry opportunities for prisoners. A program at Stanford Law School (SLS), the Three Strikes Project, provide legal representation to people serving life sentences for minor and non-violent felonies under California’s Three Strikes Law. The 1994 law imposes a life sentence on defendants convicted of any crime, regardless of severity, if they were previously convicted of two serious or violent felonies. 

“Students are going into prison, representing clients, drafting policy proposals and doing so in a genuine way,” said program director Michael Romano J.D. ’03, who founded the lab in 2006. “This isn’t busy work, this is real life work the students are doing.”

The program represents about 60 incarcerated people at any given time and has secured the freedom of hundreds of clients, Romano told The Daily. SLS students work in pairs to represent clients.

Romano said it is an invaluable experience “to sit across the table from somebody who is at the absolute bottom of the same system of justice and forge a connection.”

According to Romano, “that connection, just sitting there and seeing them and hearing their stories and going to bat for them — that is a huge benefit to everybody.”

In 2011, the program began working on the Three Strikes Reform Act, which passed in 2012 and eliminated life sentences for non-serious and non-violent crimes, Champion said. 

By “offering those already in prison to petition a court to be released early and paving the way for future legislation that reduced the sentences of tens of thousands of individuals,” the act had an immense impact, Champion said.

The Three Strikes Project also offers reentry support for recently released clients through the Ride Home Program in partnership with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, an organization working to end mass incarceration in California. The program sends volunteers to meet recently released clients at the prison gates and assists them with their basic needs during their immediate transitions out of prison. 

Romano said the drivers who do the pickups are all formerly incarcerated people “who have been through the same experience. Some of the people who they picked up, have now turned around and become drivers themselves.”

At another pro bono program, Prisoner Legal Services, SLS students answer legal questions from people serving time at San Francisco County Jail #3 in San Bruno.

With the supervision of the San Francisco County Sheriff’s prison legal services office, around 20 to 25 SLS students volunteer biweekly to ensure that incarcerated clients are fully informed on the legal details of their case and aren’t navigating their sentences blindly.

“I had never actually been to jail before I started volunteering for this project,” said Sarah Wishingrad J.D. ’25, one of the program’s leaders this upcoming school year. “One of the things that struck me really early on was that the men I was talking to in the jail just knew so much more about the law than I did, especially coming in at the beginning of law school.”

Wishingrad said she hopes the program continues to educate future cohorts of SLS students: “I hope they learn more about what the law looks like in the real world and not just in our lecture rooms.”

Another program, the Stanford Jail and Prison Education Project (SJPEP), provides educational services to incarcerated individuals at two Bay Area Jails: the Maple Street Correctional Center in Redwood City and San Francisco County Jail #3 in San Bruno. 

The project is led by Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Criminal Justice Center, Sophie Allen J.D. ’24 and sixth-year epidemiology and clinical research Ph.D. student Yiran Liu. 

Education is considered a major factor in reducing recidivism, with incarcerated individuals 43% less likely to return to prison if they participate in educational programming while incarcerated. Through SJPEP, incarcerated students receive milestone credits and a certificate of completion for their participation, which may contribute to reduced sentences, Liu wrote. 

Every year, the program selects around 40 graduate students from more than 30 departments for a teaching team, which then develops a course theme and syllabus after undergoing training during the winter quarter. Previous course themes included History and Repetitions, Humans and Earth and Great Innovations. 

Liu wrote students considered the courses “a stimulating escape from isolation and solitary confinement.”

Throughout the eight-week seminar, graduate students rotate to teach the class each week through the lens of their various academic interests. When they aren’t teaching, they learn alongside the incarcerated students. “Our graduate student volunteers have said that their involvement in SJPEP has been highly illuminating and rewarding,” Liu wrote.

Since Maggie Filler J.D. ’12 founded the program in 2011, student volunteers have taught 28 classes across the two prisons, reaching hundreds of incarcerated individuals.

A previous version of this article inaccurately referred to Three Strikes Project as a legal clinic. The Daily regrets this error.

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