Bar News - January 18, 2017
Women Helping Women
By: Melanie Plenda
New Program Brings Women Attorneys to State Prison
Other Ways to Help
The Women to Women Project is one of many volunteer programs in which New Hampshire attorneys can participate to help disadvantaged citizens with legal problems.
The NH Bar Association’s Pro Bono Referral Program and Legal Services Programs offer opportunities to provide free or reduced-fee legal services, by taking on a whole case, or by providing limited-scope representation, such as at emergency protective order hearings through the Domestic Violence Emergency (DOVE) Project.
For more information about the Women to Women Project, visit www.nhwba.org. Learn more about Pro Bono opportunities through the NH Bar Association
A new project of the NH Women’s Bar Association brings women lawyers inside the Women’s Prison in Goffstown to help inmates with legal issues. Bar News accompanied the lawyers on a visit this month, to find out more about the interactions between women on either side of the law.
Using the side of her hand for emphasis, Tracey Cannavino lightly taps the table as she lays out each plank of her question. She needs guardianship papers. She explains that the circumstances of her son’s temporary placement in foster care are complicated, but what is clear is what she wants for him – he’s to live with her sister. She just needs the papers filled and filed to make that happen. But she can’t download them from the internet, because she can’t access the internet from prison, and she hasn’t been able to ascertain hard copies of the forms.
“So, I’m hoping that if my sister can do this paperwork, then on March 7 he can just go home with my sister.” The emotion in her voice breaks the professional tone she tried to strike. Her face crumbles. The women – all attorneys – standing in front of her wait quietly, patiently. She gets the time she needs to gather herself and finish her question.
After all, that’s what the women in this room – where there are bars on the windows, and posters reminding inmates that sexual assault is not part of the sentence are taped to the drab cinderblock walls — are here to do. These attorneys are not getting paid. They are volunteers, here to listen and offer basic legal advice to female inmates who may otherwise not have access to legal information. The service is part of the Women to Women Project, a program offered by the NH Women’s Bar Association in conjunction with the Department of Corrections.
The Women to Women Project fits the broader mission of the NHWBA, says NHWBA Executive Director Gretchen Pyles, which is to promote the advancement and interests of women in the legal community through leadership, professional interaction, education, and the exchange of ideas. NHWBA also provides public service focused on improving the lives of women and children in New Hampshire.
“Our goal is to offer limited legal advice to the female inmates of the NH State Prison for Women,” Pyles says. “And the women at the prison are looking for guidance on a wide spectrum of legal issues, including family law, criminal law, collections, estate planning, as well as other areas... This is really meeting a need in our community. I don’t think that they ever had a program like this before, and it has been well-received so far.”
Debra Stanley, a Concord family law attorney, Cathy McKay, a family law attorney in Londonderry and Lindsey Courtney, attorney and chair of the NH Women’s Bar Association Public Service Committee, listen as prison inmates Cara Smith (in red) and Tracey Cannavino ask legal questions.
Tracey Cannavino (in foreground) and other inmates listen as volunteers from the NH Women’s Bar Association answer legal questions.
For the inmates, the program is a lifeline.
“I didn’t really understand about guardianship and that it can get taken away from you,” says Cannavino, an inmate who attended a recent Women to Women Project legal information session.
Cannavino says she landed back in jail after her probation officer caught her with a methamphetamine pipe. She says she used meth as a crutch to get through the death of her partner of 17 years, the father of her child. Having made progress behind the prison walls, she hopes to be out in four more months. In the meantime, she wants her son to live with her sister, and she worries about how to get through the bureaucracy.
“It is so frustrating,” she says. “Even just to get to talk to someone on the outside, there’s always a line for the phone, and the counselors have 140 women here. So, it’s just accessibility. It’s nice (through this program) to have the paperwork you need, so you can fill it out and live people to ask questions to, and to know you aren’t the only one struggling.”
Lindsey Courtney, chair of the NHWBA Public Service Committee and an attorney with Abramson, Brown & Dugan, helped launch the project last year along with NH Public Defender and NHWBA board member Laura Maistrosky.
The idea sprang from the notion that the women at the prison did not have access to the same kinds of services that the men incarcerated in state prison have. While that issue was litigated, resulting in a new women’s state prison, there were still women who needed help in the meantime.
“We were trying to figure out how to do something related to legal services that would also help women,” Courtney says. “These female inmates are at a risk of reoffending when they get out. Many of them are leaving their children and families when they go to prison.
“When women don’t have a plan for how they are going to re-enter their children’s lives and assume responsibility – albeit gradually – they are more likely to go back to their old ways. A lot of that is drug use, so many of them are likely to relapse.”
To address that issue, Courtney says, the Women to Women Project volunteers provide limited, general legal advice, particularly in the area of family law, to give women inside the prison assistance that helps them formulate plans for when they get out.
This is crucial, says Debra Stanley, a family law attorney in Concord, who volunteered for a recent session. “Children do best if they can have their parents be involved,” she says. “I believe people make mistakes, and children are willing to forgive their parents and move forward.”
Stanley hopes that for these inmates, getting more involved in their children’s cases and gaining a better understanding of what happens in such cases within the legal system, will help reduce the chance that they will commit new crimes or relapse after they are released. “It’s helpful and important to get education and information out to these women who will be getting out and hopefully will be parenting again soon, so that they’ll know their rights and they’ll know what they need to do to get their children back,” she says.
The volunteers at a recent session reminded participants that they are best able to answer general questions about legal processes, due to the nature of the program. Participants are told when they sign up for a session that the attorney volunteers are not going to represent them, and there is no attorney-client privilege during the sessions or afterwards.
The attorneys also have to remind the women that there are some things they just cannot cover, such as claims against the Department of Corrections itself. Additionally, Courtney explains, the attorneys need to be aware of ethical rules surrounding legal advice given to individuals who are already represented by counsel in a particular matter, such as abuse and neglect cases.
She adds that the attorneys don’t give advice related to the criminal cases that landed the inmates in prison in the first place, especially as many of them already have appellate counsel or a public defender.
“That’s not really why we’re here, and I don’t really think that advice would help them at this point,” Courtney says.
In addition to family law, Courtney says, the women have also expressed interest in having sessions pertaining to estate planning and disability claims.
“A huge portion of the prison population is mentally ill,” Courtney says. “A lot of them are disabled and will be seeking [Social Security Disability Income] when they get out, so they have expressed interest in those issues.”
So far, Courtney says, the biggest challenge for the volunteers has been trying to provide general answers to questions, so that others in the room also benefit. “But every answer is really fact-specific” she says. “We’re finding that we have to ask them a lot of questions about the facts [of the situation]. But I do think it is helpful for the other women who are listening. A lot of them are uncomfortable and don’t want to share their story, so they have other people who are asking the questions for them. A lot of them have really sad cases.”
Melanie Plenda is a freelance writer based in Keene, NH.