Blog Entry 18
One of the more interesting activities my students and I do is go to jail – on behalf of our clients. Currently, we represent two detainees in the Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek, Michigan. Each client is from West Africa and both attempted to enter Canada to make a refugee claim there but were not allowed to do so because they could not establish their identity and family relationships in Canada. One client has a pretty good asylum claim and the other does not. So, we are meeting with our clients, trying to get documents to prove their claims, and preparing them to testify in Immigration Court. We do the same work for all of our clients, whether they are detained or not, and students learn a great deal in the process.
What makes working with detained clients interesting, in my opinion, is the degree to which that experience affects the nature of the relationship my students have with their clients. Detained clients are almost completely dependent on their attorneys to gather evidence and build their case. Unlike clients who are not detained, detained clients have very limited access to the outside world. The impact of detention on the psychological well-being of our clients is also significant: these two clients were university graduates who were involved in political activities and arrested, imprisoned and tortured in their home countries. Now they wait in another jail (albeit one free from inhumane treatment and torture, but a jail nonetheless) for their cases to be heard. The sense of isolation and, during low moments, despair is palpable.
Jail visits can be a jarring experience for law students, most of whom have not had any contact with the back end of the criminal justice process. Sometimes our jarring experiences leave the biggest impact on our lives and students often leave the jail sad and frustrated because their clients, who they have come to know as people with families and skills and hopes and dreams, wear orange jumpsuits like criminals and their every movement is monitored and controlled by others. We talk about why detention exists and whether it is a necessary evil or not and how they can transcend the physical realities of the jail to make a human connection with their clients, to give them hope amid a bleak environment. We talk about why the air seems fresher, the skies lighter, and the trees more beautiful when we leave the jail than when we entered a few hours earlier. We talk about why we feel guilty for feeling that way, as if we are betraying our clients for being relieved we are not them.
Law school is a transcendent experience: law students learn a new language and way of interacting with the wider world and law students learn how to appreciate and navigate the greys of their clients’ lives and their own. Not all outcomes for our clients are positive and sometimes our clients suffer. Through these experiences, students learn to approach each client with humility and respect for who they are, no matter the circumstances in which they now live. To close on a bright note, students also experience the reflected joy when a detained client wins his or her claim and is released; there is no better feeling as a lawyer to know that your efforts helped spare another human being from continued detention and return to a hostile country. That may be what sets UDM Law School apart from other programs: we do not shield students from the hard work and difficult experiences that lawyers face on a daily basis any more than we deny them the rewards of the practice of law.