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Client and Family Assistance Program

The Client and Family Assistance Project focuses on reducing the hardships that families of prisoners face. The project also works to reduce unnecessary physical suffering and increase opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption. Incarceration and the threat of execution take a huge toll on the families of condemned inmates.

The PJI Client, their Family, and the Community

PJI clients frequently come from families without resources to maintain contact with loved ones. The cost of having a family member in prison is extremely high, both financially and emotionally.

  1. Keeping in Touch
    • Prisoners are only allowed to make collect calls. These collect calls home are immensely expensive, and some families simply cannot afford phone calls with their loved ones.

    • The Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola for the home country of slaves who worked the land when it was a plantation, is a three-hour drive from New Orleans and many miles away from most major cities in Louisiana. Our clients’ families often do not have the ability to make the trip to Angola. Many prisoners have gone years without seeing any family members or loved ones.

  2. Hope and the Pursuit of Innocence
    • Without basic human interaction, all people deteriorate, physically and emotionally. Prisoners who are fighting wrongful convictions often lose hope without the support of their loved ones.
    • Visits improve the behavior of prisoners.

  3. Family and Community
    • A lack of meaningful connection between prisoners and their loved ones can also traumatize children of prisoners and their families. The emotional trauma that accompanies having a family member imprisoned can lead to further strife and violence in the community.

  4. Basic Human Necessities
    • The Louisiana prison system often does not take into account the basic fundamental needs of its prisoners. Some prisoners face intense isolation, unnecessary physical suffering, and unattended medical needs.

How the Client and Family Assistance Project Helps

  1. Keeping Families Communicating:
    • PJI works to help families keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, by defraying costs of collect calls and aiding families in letter-writing.
    • PJI provides transportation for biannual family visits to Angola.

  2. Creating Healthy Minds and Healthy Communities
    • We help families maintain their connections. This work reduces prison violence, boosts the morale of condemned prisoners, and alleviates the void created by a missing family member.
    • PJI also partners with local community organizations to counsel families of prisoners, supporting them in improving coping strategies and reducing grief. Creating a safe place for families reduces acting-out in our communities and helps the families of those incarcerated live more positive, fulfilled lives.

  3. Providing the Basics
    • People have a right to the basic necessities of life. PJI helps prisoners receive medical care when the prison system will not care for them. The project also provides simple necessities, such as reading glasses and educational materials.

The Client and Family Assistance Project is largely supported through ongoing, small-scale grassroots fundraising activities and individual donations. Our project coordinator position is staffed through a low-cost partnership with AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

 

Policy Reform Project

The Policy Reform Project pursues justice at the policy level. Louisiana’s high rate of incarceration is directly tied to poverty and inequality. Only with deliberate, long-term, strategic efforts can we as a community overcome these high imprisonment rates and begin to create a healthier Louisiana.

The Prison System in Louisiana

Louisiana locks up more citizens per capita than any other state. In the 1990s, the privatization of the prison system resulted in incentives to lock up more people for longer periods of time. The same private interests influence state criminal justice policies.

How We Affect Policy

Litigation, community organizing, and policy reform go hand in hand. PJI works closely with grassroots community efforts and policy reform organizations around Louisiana to identify common priorities, develop informed ideas about legislation, and bring these ideas to state lawmakers. Our staff attends hearings, offers testimony, and develops research to drive policy changes. We strongly defend against regressive proposals, which often increase over-incarceration and fail to improve public safety.

Abolition

The Promise of Justice Initiative collaborates with the Louisiana Coalition for the Alternatives to the Death Penalty (LCADP), a grassroots coalition dedicated to achieving non-violent and effective alternatives to Louisiana’s death penalty. Together we work to educate citizens about:

  • Racial and religious discrimination in jury selection
  • Racial and geographic discrimination in first-degree murder charging decisions
  • The overwhelmingly high cost of pursuing capital convictions

PJI and LCADP also seek abolition by joining with community and grassroots organizations to advocate for improved protection of public safety, smarter and more effective uses of resources, and restorative justice for families and communities affected by murder. Our work is supported through donations from lawyers, clergy, individuals and foundations opposed to capital punishment.

 

Light of Justice Project

Our constitution guarantees fairness and even-handedness, yet too often, our criminal justice system fails to protect the constitutional rights of the accused. Bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and poor representation by defense lawyers infect outcomes, and Louisiana courts and prosecutors in particular have a long history of violating constitutional rights.

PJI works to hold prosecutors and courts accountable for violations resulting in injustice by exposing and addressing violations of constitutional rights in individual cases. While we cannot represent everyone who suffers injustice, we help prisoners gather the documents necessary to becoming their own advocates against injustice. We also provide representation and friend-of-the-court briefs in a limited number of cases.

Injustice serves no one. Innocent people languish in prison while the guilty go free. Bias in the prosecution of crimes results in disparate treatment of African-American, mentally ill, and intellectually disabled citizens. Ineffective defense representation deprives juries of facts necessary to reach just verdicts. The same is true when prosecutors deny the accused access to favorable evidence. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly declared that Louisiana’s prosecutors have withheld evidence that may prove innocence.

Our work with prisoners is spearheaded by Calvin Duncan, whose talent and commitment earned him a 2013 Soros Justice Fellowship to carry out his mission. Mr. Duncan experienced the injustice of Louisiana’s criminal justice system first-hand, spending over 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Duncan now devotes himself to helping prisoners overcome barriers to challenging wrongful convictions by providing them with:

  • Legal documentation
  • Better-equipped prison libraries with up-to-date legal information
  • Access to and review of police and district attorney files

 

Prison Conditions Project

Conditions of confinement in the Louisiana prison system violate the constitutional rights of many prisoners. Due to overcrowding, limited funding, and a narrow focus on retribution, prisoners in the Louisiana endure unnecessarily harsh conditions in their daily lives. The Prison Conditions Project provides legal support to our clients who need assistance holding the state accountable for their conditions of confinement. The Promise of Justice Initiative advocates and litigates for humane, dignified and constitutional treatment of our clients. We seek to infuse Louisiana’s prison system with reason, necessary reform, and a respect for human dignity. Our work is supported by the Venture Justice Fund.

Litigation

Inhumane Heat Conditions

In June 2013, the Promise of Justice Initiative, with co-counsel Bird Marella P.C. and Attorney Steve Scheckman of Schiff, Scheckman & White LLP, filed a federal complaint on behalf of three death row inmates, who were mentally and physically struggling with the extreme, inhumane heat conditions on death row tiers at Angola. Temperatures on death row approached dangerous and life-threatening levels.

Execution Protocol Disclosure

In December 2012, the Promise of Justice Initiative filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jessie Hoffman to challenge the State’s refusal to turn over its procedures on lethal injection. After fighting for and winning public disclosure of these procedures, PJI continues to litigate the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures in Louisiana.

Inadequate Medical Care at Angola

Adequate medical care is a right under the Eighth Amendment. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, however, prisoners are denied even basic care resulting from, among other factors, overly restrictive policies and staff shortages. In May 2015, the Promise of Justice Initiative, with co-counsel Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, the Advocacy Center, and the ACLU of Louisiana, filed a federal class action complaint on behalf of a class of prisoners who are subject to Angola's provision of medical care. Plaintiffs include men who have been denied even basic diagnostic testing for serious diseases, men who have been denied surgery for obvious and painful conditions, men who are disabled but are not reasonably accommodated under the law, and men with chronic care needs whose conditions have needlessly deteriorated because of the prison's lack of adequate care. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to deliver constitutionally adequate medical care to prisoners at Angola.

 

Advocacy

PJI regularly receives phone calls from prisoners who are requesting help with any number of difficulties they face in prison, from poor access to necessary medical and mental health care to the use of excessive force. PJI advocates with prison officials for improved responses to prisoners’ basic needs in appropriate individual cases.