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UB Law Professor Works To Make Legal Help Available To Prisoners

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: October 13, 1999

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UB law professor Teresa Miller works to make legal help available to inmates.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Teresa Miller is well-acquainted with the U.S. prison system, but not because she's spent time behind bars.

The associate professor of law at the University at Buffalo has taught a course on international human rights to female inmates in Albion Correctional Facility, worked with prisoners at Attica, and served as a volunteer lawyer with a prison project in Miami.

Miller is intensely interested in prisoners' rights and the accessibility of legal help within the system. This semester, the Harvard University law graduate is teaching courses at the UB Law School on "jailhouse lawyering" and prisoner law, which looks at constitutional law as it is applied in prisons.

"A lot of (inmates) want help with appeals, assistance in writing writs of habeas corpus or assistance in challenging their living conditions," says Miller, who is working with students in the jailhouse-lawyering course to rewrite a curriculum to teach research and writing to prisoners.

Any inmate who has the legal knowledge to assist other prisoners with their cases is considered a jailhouse lawyer. Often, paralegals or attorneys volunteer to teach those who want to provide legal assistance to other inmates, Miller says.

"There are great 'attorneys' in prison," she says. "They have a lot of time to sharpen their knowledge of the law." One of the goals of her course, she points out, is to include on her Web site http://www.ublaw.buffalo.edu/fas/miller/prisonlaw/ the updated curriculum so that any law student in the state can view it.

"The idea is to encourage more lawyers to volunteer to teach legal research and writing to inmates," she says.

While Miller is interested in the legal aspects of the prison system, her work also delves deep into the social and economic ramifications of incarceration.

"One in every 155 (people) is in prison," Miller says. "That's a staggering statistic."

Even more frightening to her are the numbers of African Americans who are incarcerated.

"One in every three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is in jail, prison, on probation or parole," she says. "I'm interested in that (statistic) as an African American. It's very hard to find an African American who doesn't know someone in prison."

The trend toward incarceration, Miller says, is deeply disturbing.

"The response has not been, 'How do we downsize the prison population?' The response is, 'How do we make it more cost-effective to incarcerate all these people?'" she says. "That, to me, is a very cynical response."

Miller takes issue with the way prisons are "warehousing" violence within the system. "We throw (inmates) together into a very violent prison subculture, and we don't protect them and we let them prey on each other," she says, noting that this class of "undesirables" is up against the notion that they are a part of the country's "waste management."

"There is no longer a stated goal of rehabilitation," Miller says. "The idea…is just not popular. The warden and the (corrections) officers rely on the violence to keep prisoners in check."

Drugs, contraband, gambling and the sex enslavement that pervade the prison system contribute to the violence, Miller adds.

Prisons today, she says, are "not about lofty goals, just how to deal with the undesirables."

Miller spent a year working with inner-city youth at the Barnyard Community Center in Miami, where, she says, she witnessed the toll prison takes on struggling communities.

"That's really when I began to see inter-generational costs of incarceration," she says. "In (some) families, fathers had done time and were marginally employed. The older brother was doing a state bid, the next-younger brother had already been in the juvenile system. (It) goes down to the 6- or 7-year-old who's been caught shoplifting."

Miller says that incarceration will be one of the biggest issues facing the country in the next century, particularly how to cope with the consequences of the system the country has created.

"Prisons create the reality that we live," she says. "The division between inside and outside is completely fictitious."

Prisons, she says, aren't turning out better citizens, and families and friends of those doing time are sharing the consequences.

"They're not creating better communities, that's for sure," she says.