Can technology help dissolve the walls that separate those in prison from our community?
We’re glad you asked. Remote learning, and the digital platforms that enable it, will soon ensure that incarcerated scholars have access to one of the most instrumental sources of American education: a law degree.
Before we get into the importance of this access, let’s look at how the journey started with just an idea and a grilled cheese.
All Square is a nonprofit social enterprise in the Twin Cities that invests in the minds and lives of formerly incarcerated leaders. Founded in 2016, we exist as a response to the exclusion of formerly incarcerated family, friends, and neighbors from economic freedom and forward momentum. Post-incarceration exclusion ties intimately to poverty and recidivism. We intentionally direct our resources to those impacted by this exclusion and systemic ills stemming from racism and oppression.
Currently, All Square channels its investments through a 12-month entrepreneurial fellowship—a portion of which is carried out through our craft grilled cheese restaurant in South Minneapolis (yes, we said grilled cheese!). Each year, we invest in bi-annual cohorts of formerly incarcerated leaders in the areas most important to them. This investment includes courses in business, wealth building, and personal development, plus individual and family therapy—for those who choose to leverage it—and employment in our restaurant.
The pandemic’s irrevocable reach forced All Square and our fellowship to innovate at an unprecedented speed and allowed us an opportunity to think critically about our strategic growth. This time of reflection, coupled with the murder of George Floyd and the demands of our community, provided All Square’s roadmap for collaboratively expanding into jurisprudence.
Access to Law Degrees for Incarcerated Scholars
Incarcerated scholars do not have access to ABA-accredited law degrees because the American Bar Association (ABA), which oversees law schools, has historically required “in-person, synchronous learning.” In addition, morality clauses disqualify those with criminal records from gaining admission into law school and sitting for the bar exam. Some law schools and bar associations are amenable to individuals with low-level offenses (such as DUIs) but not to those with felony convictions. Consequently, the legal field is largely devoid of this critical segment of our community.
This lack of representation—which ties to race, as Minnesota incarcerates our Black and Native communities at 9.1 and 14.3 times the rate of our white community—is halting critical progress towards a legal system that is wholly representative. As a result, the legal discipline is not benefiting from, and laws are not advancing with, the array of generational legal knowledge held by currently and formerly incarcerated scholars and those whose lives have, in many cases, been upended by legal instruments and mass incarceration.
As aptly summarized by Kevin Reese, Founder of Until We Are All Free, a criminal justice organization led by formerly incarcerated experts who provide frontline resources to those in prison, “The law was the language of the bars. It was the language of the keys. It was the language of the cells. It was a language that was written to us, not for us.”
Building the Prison-to-Law Pipeline
In response to this challenge, we are developing a Prison-to-Law Pipeline (PLP) and companion law firm that will put the keys to the law in the hands of those most impacted by it. The PLP program opens the door to ABA-approved paralegal degrees and ABA-accredited law degrees for currently incarcerated Minnesotans. The Pipeline’s first cohort, which entails six prospective paralegal students and two prospective law students, is slated to commence in June and August, respectively. To our knowledge, this program will facilitate the first-ever currently incarcerated Juris Doctorate students who will be plugging into existing courses from Shakopee and Stillwater correctional facilities. Mitchell Hamline School of Law is exploring the possibility of providing the Juris Doctorate education and partnering in the development of the program in general. This program is further made possible by our partnership with currently incarcerated legal scholars, Until We Are All Free, North Hennepin Community College, and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Maureen Onyelobi is a prospective Juris Doctorate student and PLP committee member. In April, she took her LSAT exam from Shakopee prison, proctored by Dean Anthony Niedwiecki of Mitchell Hamline School of Law—a historic moment in itself. Maureen believes in the importance of representing those with lived experience in the legal field, as she shared, “We have a drive and a passion for learning the law that most have never seen before because we know what it is to be in here; we know what it’s like to be on this side of the law.”
The All Square Law Firm
Reimagining the legal system requires altering law school admissions and rethinking how law firms are structured. Considering the potential licensure and employment issues that come as a collateral consequence of incarceration, All Square is developing a nonprofit, public interest law firm that will employ PLP graduates and implement new pathways for incarcerated legal scholars to engage in the legal discipline. Slated to open in 2022, the Firm will approach law through the needs and expectations of the community we serve and create innovative ways for those with lived experience to engage in legal work, with or without a legal degree and professional licensure.
Given the importance of clinical opportunities for students, the Firm will partner with Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s Reentry Clinic to work with PLP scholars, whether they are actively incarcerated or returned home. The Firm will operate as a nexus for impact litigation in partnership with the Clinic and private Minnesota law firms. We will aim litigation efforts at the systemic predatory practices and barriers that currently and formerly incarcerated Minnesotans face, specifically as it relates to bail, housing, and consumer protection.
Technology & COVID: Dissolving the Walls that Divide Us
When COVID took hold in 2020, we saw the world fundamentally change in a moment. The pandemic wreaked havoc on communities across the globe, including our prison community. The forced migration to online learning platforms coupled with the ABA’s subsequent relaxation of “in-person, synchronous learning” requirements created a universe where attending law school from prison is possible. These unexpected and foundational shifts are, quite literally, helping us dissolve the prison walls that divided our community for far too long.
Granted, providing access to those “behind bars” is not easy. Due to security concerns, which are of the utmost importance, our incarcerated community does not have access to the internet, and access to existing computers comes with strict limitations both on time and use. With this, the mechanics of attending law school “from the inside” are nuanced, requiring heightened diligence.
However, due to COVID, the Minnesota Department of Corrections and American Prison Data Systems provides those in prison with tablets capable of accessing learning management systems utilized by external academic institutions and designed to preserve all security measures. With these tablets come a collective commitment from the Minnesota Department of Corrections and academic institutions to identify and solve any subsequent IT-related issues that could prevent the successful implementation of the PLP programming moving forward.
A collective will to move forward fuels the PLP. So many across every sector are rising to meet the demands of this era – an era haunted by the heinous murders of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and countless other Black and Brown citizens whose lives were stolen by the legal system and the powers that perpetuate it.
We all have a role to play in ensuring that currently and formerly incarcerated individuals have avenues to ABA-accredited legal degrees, legal licensure, and the legal discipline at large. Our dream is to see the very individuals impacted by the legal landscape reshape it. We can leverage technology, strategic collaborations, and our collective fortitude to make this happen.
We are calling on citizens across the nation to join us in forging this critical transformation; one that our communities deserve: