When I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I attended a Critical Race Theory Seminar hosted by political activist, professor, and author Angela Davis. I learned a great deal about the prison-industrial complex. From there, I became interested in topics ranging from prison conditions, mass incarceration, and other social justice issues. When I decided to go to law school, I knew that I wanted to get involved in the prisoner civil rights space in some capacity.
I joined the Prisoner Civil Rights Mediation Clinic at McGeorge School of Law to provide inmates with a chance at receiving justice. I’ve learned that upwards of 90 percent of cases filed by inmates do not make it to court. The reasons for this statistic are plentiful. Inmates face many hurdles when filing a complaint, ranging from costly filing fees, a lack of resources, and most importantly, the incredibly high burden inmates bear when proving a Section 1983 claim. Consequently, mediation is an excellent alternative for inmates to seek resolution. I often felt that mediation provided these inmates the closest alternative to their day in court.
During the first part of the Clinic, I learned about the administrative process within the prison system and the various types of prisoner civil rights claims. In particular, the clinic provided a primer on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, inmates’ First Amendment claims, and the like.
The latter part of the Clinic allowed me to interview inmates, write memos for a Federal Magistrate Judge, and participate in facilitative mediation. Speaking frequently with a Federal Magistrate Judge made me feel more comfortable in the courtroom. Also, the Clinic offered simulated mediations, which made me feel adequately prepared when mediation day arrived. I learned many practical skills that translate to all areas of legal practice. Specifically, I learned how to help parties craft a mutually acceptable solution by utilizing negotiation and problem-solving skills. Not to mention, the clinic allowed me to work as a full-time law clerk for the Eastern District of California the fall of 2021.
My most profound experience in the Clinic was interviewing inmates. I realized that many inmates made their mistakes and ended up in prison, in part, because of unfortunate circumstances such as poverty, racial bias, and lack of resources. As I interviewed these inmates, I learned more about their families and the many challenges they faced during childhood. Often, inmates are stigmatized once they commit a crime, but I don’t believe that society should view a person based solely on the mistakes they’ve made in life.
While these issues can be complex, Bryan Stevenson best illustrates my perspective on these matters in his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
By Ryan Tyre, a third-year law student at McGeorge School of Law.