Law School-based Prison Letters Project seeks to amplify voices from prison
A team of Yale Law School affiliates headed by professor Emily Bazelon has compiled an online database of prison correspondence that so far includes around 100 letters.
Yasmine Halmane, Photo Editor
After publishing a story on the exoneration of a prisoner named Yutico Briley, Yale Law School professor Emily Bazelon ’93 LAW ’00, began to receive letters from incarcerated people who had heard about her story. Now, Bazelon and several law school students are working to make sure the voices behind the bar are heard.
The Prison Letters Project was first launched by Bazelon in the fall of 2021 with the help from a group of Yale Law School students and Kayla Vinson, executive director of the Law and Racial Justice Center. The aim of the project is to amplify the letters Bazelon and other Yale Law School affiliates receive — most of which claim innocence or speak of excessive sentencing — by compiling them in a public database.
“The project is designed to amplify their voices.” Bazelon said. “We just had this idea that if people saw what we saw and heard the voices of the people writing, that might have an impact. I think ideally, journalists would pick up on some of these cases and write about them, or lawyers would volunteer to represent them, or people could volunteer as pen pals. But we also just had the idea that just putting the stories and the voices out there would be helpful.”
In order to compile their database, Bazelon’s team first developed a process to respond to the letters they received. The law school students send an intake form to the incarcerated writers asking for more information about their cases and permission to publish their information online. Once permission is received, the letters enter the public database.
The Prison Letters Project does not provide legal representation or provide legal advice about cases.
Before Bazelon started the project, she called various innocence projects and learned that they have a backlogs of letters and they can only represent a small fraction of people who write to them. Bazelon believed that though publicizing these letters is not the same as direct advocacy, it could still offer some interim steps and pull in more resources.
John Lennon, an incarcerated journalist reporting from Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York has helped to write up newsletters for the New York Times about the Prison Letters Project stories he feels indicate especially profound injustice. Lennon said that the project is a way to show the public what is going on in a case and serves as a lead for other lawyers, clinics and journalists.
“One of the main claims in most of the letters is innocence,” Lennon said. “But the truth is, you don’t have to be innocent to be experiencing injustice in the American prison system. We’re trying to just look at the letters in a nuanced way.”
Johnathan Terry LAW ’23, Natalie Smith LAW ’23 and Partha Sharma LAW ’23 have been on the project since Bazelon reached out for volunteers in fall 2021. Sharma, having worked at a law firm that handled civil lawsuits, criminal defense and post-convictions, spoke to the limited channels incarcerated people have for legal redress, which he said prompts their eagerness to be connected with advocates. Smith concurred that there are very few ways for people in prison to publish their stories and make their voice heard.
The project has so far processed around 100 letters, Terry said. Most of them were sent to Bazelon before the project started, Terry noted.
Bazelon said that the Yale Law Library, the Liman Center and many Yale Law School professors have received letters from incarcerated people. Moving forward, if there are enough volunteers and interests, Bazelon said there is an opportunity to expand the project.
Bazelon said that the value of this project also lies in students corresponding with people who are in prison. A lot of people who are incarcerated do not have a significant support network, she said, and having people who are writing back to them is meaningful.
“I’ve always felt bad about mail from people who are incarcerated,” Bazelon said. “I’ve always tried to answer it, but there is a huge gap between just writing back and doing anything more. I’m not actually sure this project solves that challenge, but it’s an attempt.”
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