|Participant Name||Participant Initials||Description (Role/Job)|
|Mercedes Montagnes||MM||Promise of Justice Initiative|
|Cal Armijo||CA||Volunteer Interviewer|
CA: All right, perfect. Well, it's nice to, to, to meet you at least sort of virtual virtually.
MM: [laughs] Yes.
CA: Um [laughs] I did want to, uh, start by introducing myself. Uh my name is Cal Armijo and I'm a 2L here at UCLA, um volunteering with the COVID-19 behind bars project. Um and before we start, I have a short confidentiality statement that I I'd like to read. Um I want to start by explaining how we plan to use the conversation we are about to have. Our conversation is not legally privileged, and we will not keep what you say confidential. We plan to make transcripts and recordings of our interviews available for use by future researchers and the general public. And portions may be posted online or discussed in posts on our website, or other published writing. I want our conversation to flow freely, and I realize that you may discuss a sensitive topic or mention a piece of information that you later realize you would like withheld. If you request it now at the end of the interview, or later on after further reflection, we are happy to, for you to review the transcript of our conversation before it's made public and to redact any portions you deem necessary from the transcript and from the recording. Um so I think I'd like to, to start by asking you to explain your your legal background, what kind of work you were doing, pre pandemic, um where you went to law school.
MM: Cool. Sure. Um, I graduated from law school in 2009. Um and I first you know, sort of became interested in this area of law, professor Dolovich, was visiting Harvard at the time, and I took her classes at Harvard. And then I graduated in 2009, I clerked for two judges, Carl (Barbier), in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and Roger Gregory, who's the Chief Judge of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Um after that, I moved back to Louisiana- well, I took care of some family members. And then after that, I moved back to Louisiana. And um, in November of 2012, with my colleagues at the Capitol Appeals Project founded the Promise of Justice Initiative. And really, the goal of that organization was to provide for the whole client, right. So we had criminal lawyers who were representing people primarily on death row, um in their direct appeals and post conviction applications. And we looked around and saw that our clients had a multitude of needs, so they needed direct assistance, they needed money to help, um for winter clothes, connect with their families, um just meet sort of basic needs of living inside a prison and not being able to um do any um incentive work, despite the low wages of that. We had clients who were experiencing extreme heat, um a lack of medical care. Um we also had a lot of people who were reaching out to us for help who weren't on death row who needed help with their criminal cases. And then we saw that there was a real need for policy change. And so PJI [Promise of Justice Initiative] was sort of founded to create the wraparound um outside of that criminal direct representation. Um and in my, our lawsuits have primarily focused on conditions litigation, though that is expanding. Um we also do work around, you know, some post conviction litigation issues, um once people are outside of prison. Um and we've been working on over detention as well. We have two class actions on over detention. Prior to the pandemic, um I was made executive director in 2018. Um and, um, we have focus, my focus was really on um conditions primarily at Louisiana State Penitentiary.
CA: That all sounds absolutely fascinating. Um could you, uh, explain a little bit about how kind of things changed once the pandemic started?
MM: Sure. So we had a pending class action lawsuit um that where we had had a trial, and we were awaiting a decision um at LSP, regarding the medical care there, and as soon as the pandemic hit, um we obviously knew that um things were going to shift rapidly. Um what we did was we filed a motion in the medical suit. Sorry, let me back up for a second. Um I was contacted by a reporter. Um actually, as I was walking my son in the park, who told me, essentially that she had received information that suggested that um Angola is going to reopen camp J. Camp J has, was a solitary confinement camp at Angola that had previously been shuttered because it was essentially so horrific. And they were going to reopen camp J. And the plan was to move everyone who had COVID from every jail and prison throughout the state of Louisiana to this one camp in the middle of Angola. And that caused me grave concern for a number of reasons. Um one, Louisiana has hundreds of facilities. Um we, about half of our, um, post disposition, meaning our sentenced population, our, our men and women who have been sentenced remain in local facilities. Our local facilities house about half of our DOC um population. So we have a lot of small facilities scattered throughout the state. Um Angola is located erm, in an area that is very far from public from a public hospital. Um the closest large public hospital is in New Orleans, which is several hours away, Baton Rouge, which is an hour and a half away. Camp J, to my knowledge, and what borne out to be true had been shuttered for several years in South Louisiana, where things like mold and dust and vermin grow over things very, very quickly. Um I thought I didn't think it would be habitable. Um I had concerns about the act of transporting people and the ways in which that could spread COVID-19 to staff and make other people vulnerable to it. Um and to me, it's it seemed like a very ill conceived plan, given that the sickest, most vulnerable people were, were housed at Angola. And the potential that they would get COVID from these transfers was heightened. And I knew that that was a medical care system, having just tried a class action suit against it that was not in any position to take on additional medical care. Um and so as a result, we um filed a motion in our lawsuit, to ask the judge to consider this. Um the judge said this is not um within the scope of this case and dismissed that motion. And so then we filed a separate and new lawsuit, um essentially arguing everything I just said, um along with what I thought was some compelling evidence. Um the court disagreed [laughs]. And, um, we lost that. Um our office also became aware of um some horrific things happening within juvenile facilities, understaffing, um juveniles were were being segregated from their families and their parents, they were not being given information about what was happening. We filed a class action lawsuit against the juvenile system. We held a several day hearing that we thought was, again, pretty compelling. Um and again, we lost. Um so, um, that was our litigation angle. Um we've we've also um done a number of other things. We have had some communications work that we've done, um to lift up the stories of families and incarcerated people during COVID. Um we've also tried really hard, um, to push for medical clemency and medical parole. Um we've tried to push our clients who are eligible for clemency or for parole and push their cases forward as quickly as possible. Um and, um then we've also sort of increased our capacity to help clients who are inside, um, and tried to find new ways to support them um through whatever means we could given that we don't travel back and forth to, well, until recently, we haven't been able to travel and actually see our clients. So we've tried a number of things to mitigate um the impact of COVID 19. I would say that the best thing that I can say that maybe we did was push the issue of medical parole to a point where it sounds like a lot of people are now taking seriously that that should be something that's more readily available. And, um, second thing is that almost every single one of our clients that we’re in contact with was vaccinated. Um and I think we did a good job of stressing the importance of the vaccination and encouraging our clients to get back.
CA: There's a lot in there-
CA: that I would like to get to. Um what kind of was the aftermath of um the loss of those those litigation suits? Um especially following, uh, you know, uh was everybody really shipped out to uh, to Angola? And, and, um you know, what, what was was that as bad as you'd hoped or, as you'd feared? Um.
MM: Um well, so that, so that's the silver lining of everything. And, and sort of the reason why when we talk about our work, and we talk about especially conditions lawsuits, we need to redefine how we think about success. Um it at the height of it, when we filed the lawsuit, I believe there were 120 people at Camp J. To our knowledge, that number steadily declined after our lawsuit and never went back up, above 20, of outside people being kept there. Um so, you know, I-I couldn't say why they, they veered away from that plan. But there was certainly a strong indication from, um, our lawsuit and the potential impacts of it that I, I assume, or I hope, that that calmer heads, um, heads prevailed, and they decided that it wasn't the best idea in the whole world to do that. Um, and so, you know, I, I credit the lawsuit in some ways as having done, push that needle forward, um, and put pressure on the state not to enact that plan. Um, hard to know. Maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel better [laughs]. Um and then, in the juvenile facility, we saw, um, you know, really the services ramped up immediately after we filed that lawsuit as well. And so I, I, part of what our job is, is to see our clients and to lift up their stories and to help them tell their own stories and to be a microphone from the inside. And that I think we did as well as we could do, um given how unprecedented it was, and how quickly things were moving. Um my team was just, you know, the the people who work at PJI, are just unbelievably dedicated people. Um we, we you know, who moved very quickly, and put aside our own fears and concerns of living in a pandemic and really prioritized our clients as much as we could.
CA: Yeah, it, it sounds like that. You guys are doing good work out there for sure. Um could you talk a little bit more about what kind of conditions um surrounding medical care, uh was like pre pandemic? Because you said that you worked a little bit on, um suits, kind of [laughs] during that transition period? Um can you speak at all about what the, uh those were kind of concerning? Um.
MM: Sure, I can. Um the judge issued an opinion in March of 2021. And so we actually have, we won that lawsuit. Um and we are heading into a trial in June to determine the remedy that will be imposed against LSP. Um (she) found that the medical care at Angola was unconstitutionally um bad in several respects, and that they also violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in several respects. Um so I'll speak generally generally, just because we are still in litigation, and I don't want to, um get into too many specifics. But essentially, um beginning in about 2015, people were reporting to us incidents of a lack of medical care, extreme delays between requesting a visit with a doctor and seeing a doctor. Um I met a man who became our named plaintiffs who subsequently passed away who had made, you know, dozens and dozens and dozens of sick calls. Um over a year and a half, he lost a tremendous amount of weight. And by the time he was diagnosed with his renal cancer, it had metastasized to his entire body, and was essentially inoperable. Um and we saw cases like that over and over and over again, where someone would, um have been asking for help and asking for help and asking for help. And finally, by the time they got help, they had a cancer that had metastasized to their whole body. Um we saw, you know, people in pain that wasn't being managed, we saw just a lot of neglect around different diseases and ways that they were handled, and the care was just very episodic, um as the judge said. And so, um we filed the lawsuit in 2015, um and it's just been ongoing.
CA: And did that kind of stuff get worse once the pandemic started? You know, the, the delay of care and all of that seems like it would have only kind of been exacerbated by the, um, I mean, all of the, the, the COVID, uh related, you know, shortages of hospitals and stuff, um did that change, um, once the pandemic started?
MM: So I certainly think that there are, there are new problems that have emerged and things have definitely continued and been exacerbated. It's, um you know, this is the question for our trial in June. And so I would rather not get too much into the details of it. But I would I think it's safe to say they certainly didn't improve under COVID.
CA: I can imagine. Um you also talked a little bit, uh about how you um were you couldn't go see clients physically. Um, how were you able to work? Was it was it over the phone, over video? And and did that affect the way that you were able to advocate for for these people?
MM: Yeah, I mean, for me, in my practice, to have not been to the prison for three months in a row is a pretty exceptional um three months for me. Um for most of my career, I've been up there several times a month, at least. Um it's about a three and a half hour drive from New Orleans, maybe three hours, depending on who's driving. Um, and sometimes it can be like two and a half, it's it’s it's confusing. Um and so I think, you know, the lack of physical contact with the outside world, was extremely challenging, and especially with our most vulnerable clients. Um you know, clients are not a monolith. And there's some people who have built and feel comfortable with the lives that they have within the prison in terms of security and safety and sort of networks. And there's other clients who feel very isolated and don't have those networks. And so for us, our most vulnerable clients definitely felt the impact of that, more than anyone else. Um yeah, I mean, the distance, the disconnect, the inability to look someone in the eye, um all of those things are are very hard in terms of is this information I'm getting correct? Is, can I trust it? Did this person feel some sort of duress when they gave me this information? There are all sorts of questions you have to ask yourself, when you're communicating through a mediated platform. Um in much the same way, like, um our communication on Twitter is different than our communication face to face. Um that's what we're experiencing, um, through our connection with our clients, and that is just incredibly difficult on everyone. But I think more to the point is that our clients haven't been able to see their families, to see their children, to see their, to see their loved ones. And um that's a pretty desperate situation, um, for years to endure for years on end. Um and, and certainly something we've seen the impact of on everyone.
CA: Yeah, I can only imagine, um. You also talked about about kind of the community work, that the um, Promise of Justice Initiative, um, does. Does, was that affected in similar ways? Um, you know, regarding, lockdown?
MM: Yeah I mean, yeah. You know, um, I think we're all learning, there are certain things that are easier and certain things that are harder to do in the pandemic. And so, for example, we do a lot of outreach within the survivor community. And I think for some survivors, showing up on a Zoom meeting is like a lot easier than going to a place and talking to people about sort of the most traumatic thing that's ever happened to you in your life. So we, in in surprising ways, I think our network of people who are justice or are interested in sort of a non punitive approach to the justice system, who are also primary and secondary survivors, has been more fruitful. Um certainly outside of Orleans in North Louisiana. So there, it's it's, it’s a, in that way, it's sort of a mixed bag. Um but it's also the impact is, there's this unsaid impact, right, which is like, um I have all these like friendships and relationships that I've formed over my career with people and humans that I understand to be part of a community of people who are doing this work together and on whom I can rely, and that builds trust and understanding and it builds a certain amount of ease of doing the work. And when you're doing work like this, it's very hard, um and everybody is remote. Um it's really hard to feel that, um, amount of support and connection. Um we've actually recently been back in the office. Um and I've seen the huge change in some of our younger, new sorry, not younger, necessarily, but newer staff members in terms of like, oh, there is this whole community of people who genuinely want to support me, and someone can tell me that over zoom, but that doesn't really ring home until I'm walking down the halls, and someone's asking me how I do. And so, um, I think that's been profoundly hard and disorienting for people. Um and fascinatingly, like, um, when I look at staff who are most eager to go back to the office, it's the staff who've never been in the office, um because they don't have a view of that. And I know, that's complicated, and it is complicated. And certainly you need flexibility and we have that. And certainly, you need to have an approach that's appropriate, and lots of different ways and, be thoughtful about it. But, um, I do think that having seen it through the lens of our clients has allowed us to understand that actually being together is important. Um and, and and the staff is sort of unified about that, um in a nice way.
CA: I, uh, can can imagine that, that um, lots of people are are eager to get back to it. I guess the next thing I kind of wanted to, to ask about was was the scope of your work? Is it primarily only focusing in that section of Louisiana? Does it cover the entire state? Or do you do things kind of on a national basis?
MM: So we are a local organization, and that is incredibly, um, we think, incredibly valuable. So we have relationships with with stakeholders from across the spectrum. You know, survivors, um family members, impacted people who are no longer incarcerated. Um you know, lots and lots and lots of different stakeholders that we have connections with. Um one of our projects, we have a project called The End Plantation Prison Project, which is aimed at looking at prison labor, and um how we can sort of revolutionize prison labor in a way that acknowledges the history of chattel slavery in this country, but also doesn't take away something that many of our clients actually derive a substantial amount of joy from, which is the ability to work and and do the things that they do. Um in that project, um we have uh local partners in Mississippi and Arkansas, who in the next phases of the project, we would hope to partner with, um but we really are, um, a local organization. Um and, and um, that really is a very important part and reason why we feel we're able to do our work, because we're very much deep in the community of this state and understand, um, you know, the various idiosyncratic idiosyncrasies of of Louisiana and what makes us Louisiana, what can and cannot be done here.
CA: I can imagine. Um, do, are there are there any ways that that you think, uh that part of the country has has been affected differently than other parts? Um like, have you seen (it in) kind of I mean, we've talked a little bit about um some of the unique issues that that um your clients specifically were facing. Are are there any other kinds of um differences you can highlight in in, um the struggles you specifically faced in that area?
MM: Yeah, I mean, I think it's it’s it’s the struggles. It's also like the reality right? So, um, we, you know, we often talk as an office about who we partner with and our comfort level with people who do things that we don't completely agree with, and people who do things that we do. And I think, um, you know, for example, we have a Democratic governor, um, who is extremely um, who who who genuinely is a very devout Catholic and is extremely against abortion and has passed some of the most restrictive abortion um laws that the country, of anywhere in the country. Um he's also in the past championed criminal justice reform and someone who we believe is against the death penalty, um and so, though though he is sort of circumspect (on that). Um and so, like, we don't have the luxury of saying, like, we will not work with John Bel Edwards, right? Like, that's just like, not a reality in which we will accomplish anything for our clients. I think a big piece of how we work has to be like being thoughtful about the impact that that has on staff in different ways. Um different staff are going to be impacted by those decisions in different ways. And so making sure that we're hearing and understanding those, but also just accepting a certain reality, which is that, like, we're going to have to work with people who we disagree with, in all sorts of different ways at different
CA: When you say like you're working with the governor, or you're working with the, the Catholic Church, what does that, what does that mean on a more concrete level?
MM: Well, so on the Catholic Church, like we do events with Sister Helen (Prasion). She's uh, a death penalty abolitionist. She wrote, um Dead Man Walking, she's a Catholic nun. You know, she herself is, is like, we agree with everything she does. But she is a Catholic nun [laughs] nonetheless. Um she sits on the board of our, uh Louisiana's, um for the repeal of the death penalty. So, um so there's that. Um with the governor, I mean, in terms of, you know, we, we actively seek his support. Um we try really hard to, like, get him to want to be a backer of our bills. I mean, there, there, um. Yeah, there's just lines. It's very, it's it’s something that's always very front of mind, um for us as an organization, and something that we're regularly trying to assess and understand and appreciate, like, where we all stand with it being sort of a group of, at our heart, you know, prison abolitionists who [laughs] uh, care deeply about sort of the larger stakes here. Um but also knowing that we live in a place where we have to take victories, and we have to play offense. I'd say the other biggest thing, and you see it this year with um, voting rights, redistricting. For a long time, I think people who were pushing for progressive change in our country, there were certain fights we didn't get in because we thought they were losers. And so we just didn't bother to fight those fights. And now, like, what I see is like the value of showing up and pushing on something, even if there's no chance you're gonna win. Um because the conversation changes and you're at the table, and you're not an amorphous, crazy liberal lady vibe. You're like uh, ‘Mercedes is here and I know her and I've met her and she's, she's a lovely human who asks me about my children’. You know, and and, and um there's so much more value to just like humanizing ourselves and being at that table than I, than I really ever understood before I worked in a place like Louisiana and we've been able to stop a lot of bad stuff from happening, um, just by being a presence in a room. Um and that I think, is like, exhausting in some ways. And I think it's particularly hard on my incredible policy team who have to like be at the legislator, legislature and hear horrible things happening all the time and get still get up every day and, and do this work. But it has really, really helped a lot of people just by showing up.
CA: Can you speak, um, a little more about some of the, the, um kinds of conversations where you you’ve showed up? And, um, you know, maybe talked your way into being taken seriously, in, in a, some kind of more capacity? Do you have any kind of, um?
MM: Sure, I think the best concrete example is, um, is, um, so when someone is incarcerated is put in a hospital, um, the hospital will sort of determine the security level of that person. And oftentimes, it's incredibly restrictive. And so someone will sort of be spending maybe their last days in a hospital and they won't be able to see their family members or loved ones. And, um, we sort of by showing up and meeting and and being introduced to the people who ran the Hospitals Association, over time have been able to build a relationship with them. Um as well as with a number of doctors in the state, who’ve sort of taken up this mantle of actually, people who are incarcerated in the, when they're in the hospital, like should be able to visit with loved ones, especially if it's, you know, the end of life and have pushed for new regulations that really provide for that. Um and that is incredibly important both to the clients, but especially to children who are losing parents who are incarcerated, to be able to be with them. Um, you know, to be with them in their final days, having had that, um, opportunity with my own mother, um I know how important it can be to be there at the end. Um and so that's one example of many where just building relationships, like how am I going to build a relationship with the hospital association of Louisiana? [laughs] Um, and then another example, I would say is that, um, our prison system, um, particularly the regional Warden, and the warden of Angola, have taken a pretty active stance in terms of understanding issues around transgender, people who are transgendered and incarcerated, and they really are trying. They're not getting it, right. Um but they are actively interested in learning. And a lot of that has come from exposure to people within our community, um and relationships that have been built over time, and trust that's been built. And it's actually pretty amazing to be in a room with a prison warden who's near tears describing the transformation of his life as he's come to understand the needs of transgendered people. Um, and, you know, it doesn't always result in like the perfect execution or the perfect plan. But it does, um, make you feel like having conversations over the long term is what's going to help actually move this needle.
CA: I think there's some absolutely fascinating conversations in there. You know, um, it's I mean, balancing the ideology with with practicality, right?
CA: Um, can you speak at all about how transgender people are, um, treated within prisons, or in kind of the issues that they they face and how that maybe that's changed? Maybe it hasn't.
MM: Ugh, I mean, in many ways, it hasn't, in many ways it has, and it's sort of dependent on like, the institutions that they get access to, and their ability to like, navigate and create safety. I, I, I sort of still believe, not completely, I've seen some, some examples of it, but like, genuinely, genuinely believe like self advocacy is the thing that's resulted in the best change in terms of like, me, as a lawyer, the things I've been able to do are pretty, pretty limited compared to what I've seen clients do in their own self advocacy and their own relationship building. And I, you know, I don't know if that's a function of the South because I've only practiced in the south. But certainly it is true here that when, when I've seen improvements in care, it's been because someone has formed a series of relationships in which people have begun to change their own minds over time, um. And I wish that wasn't true. I wish I had like a silver bullet. Um, but that is the best examples I've seen. And certainly, you know, we see this with our clients who are blind, um, we see this with with all of our most vulnerable clients. Um, the clients who do the best are the clients who are able to develop a network of people around them, who protect them, who create safety from within the institution, and are able to translate their needs, through the correctional officers in a way that keeps them safe. Um and that is, uh that is just sort of, I, as an attorney, as an outsider, I cannot create those kinds of safety nets for somebody who's incarcerated, um unfortunately. Um my tools are very limited from a litigation perspective. And so that's why to me, especially on issues of safety for for, for vulnerable folks, um I do think that like those relationship building, and those people and I'm, I'm an outside baseball person. I'm not the person who like, is cozy with the DOC, that's just like, not me, and, and I have many colleagues who do that much better than I do. Um but I have come to understand the value of that role, um much better than I than I used to in terms of how there are certain interventions that they're able to do, um that I that I would never be able to get on behalf of my clients. Because, you know, I'm, I'm, I’m the litigator [laughs], I'm not the, the peacemaker. Um but I think both both, it, it's really an ‘and’, it's really a, it has to be an ‘and’, it cannot be one or the other. Um and and, you know, with the times when we've been able to effectuate change on behalf of especially our transgender clients, it's been my colleagues who really have good inside connections, who've been able to get different housing assignments and create the kinds of um buffers needed to to, to create more safety that I that I would never as a litigator be able to do it. As someone who, you know, I don't know what your plans are for the future. You know, being humble as a litigator is perhaps the best thing you can do [chuckling]. And understand the limits of litigation, because as I say, a lawyer sees a problem. And they they, they, it still happens in my office despite us having tried to drill it out of people for years, they just automatically are like, ‘where's the lawsuit there?’ And that's just not, that's not the, the end all be all. And that's not the universe of auctions to helping our clients.
CA: That's a perspective I don't think I hear a lot of people take but I, it's one I, I find intriguing. I mean, I it, uh, I it sounds like a lot of the work that you're doing is kind of, you know, working both through the problem, but also around it. And, uh, I think that's really cool. Um you've spoken a little bit about some of your work with um more marginalized communities and (liberal liberal) communities. Have there been communities that were more affected by some of the, the problems through COVID? Or, or, lack of medical care? Um I mean, we started the pandemic in kind of a space of racial justice reckoning, right? Um are there any kinds of inequities that, that have really been, um, exacerbated by some of the issues around COVID?
MM: I mean, it it it's impossible to talk about living in New Orleans and not to talk about the inequities of COVID. Obviously, I feel like we're ground zero for that, um. Uh [sighs], yes, um, you know, I think we have not done, the racial data for who was incarcerated was not available to us. And we haven't we it's something that we wanted to, to do. But we haven't, we haven't been able to get our hands on the racial data in order to assess directly. But we always assume, um, frankly, um, that there is going to, that that inequity, that there's no reason to believe that the inequity that exists outside the prison wouldn't be replicated from within the prison. Um and I also think that, you know, one important piece of how this year has gone and how this time has gone for everyone, is that our colleagues, particularly our colleagues of color, have had a much harder time through the last three years in terms of images of violence and impact of everything that's happened in this country and, and, you know, just the Trump presidency in general. Um and so, I will say like, it's been a learning process for us as an organization to really evaluate how we assess impact and view that. Um but yeah, I mean, I, it’s unquestionable that the impact has been, both in terms of health losses and sheer numbers, but also in terms of like, mental health impact. I mean, just the justice (Ketanji Jackson Browne) hearings and the impact of that, and the disparate impact that that had on my colleagues, um, was enormous. Um both in the like, joy but also in watching this incredibly, this woman who had an incredible career and who just being torn apart um on live television, um just it was overwhelming. Um and for and for, particularly for some of our colleagues. And so um I, I've been challenged, and, and I'm challenging us all to rethink impact and damage in terms of how all of that lands and hits us.
CA: (Could you lay), elaborate a little more on on that last part? Um, ()
MM: Just when we think of like health outcomes, we think of like, all those things, but like the daily stress of a headline in which a black woman is being mistreated by white men on live television, like, I don't know that we can measure it, I don't know that we have sophisticated tools that measure the impact of that. The sadness that a mother might feel that her daughter's witnessing, that. The the like, all the smaller losses, um that I think we don't have tools sophisticated enough to measure.
CA: This is going to be kind of an impossible question. But, uh, how do we go about changing some of these things? I mean, um, in some cases, I mean, it's, it's kind of all pervasive and and baked into a lot of the the I mean, structures of our society. Um do you have any kind of thoughts about, what do we do? Right?
MM: Well, I think that the power of saying something out loud, and of acknowledging it is very underestimated. And I, I've seen in my lifetime, in my career, a few real changes in how we talk about things. But in particular, you know, when I would talk about the roots of incarceration in Louisiana, to chattel slavery, when my career began, people would sort of look at me shocked and with like discomfort, and that that was not like a conversation that anyone wanted to engage in. And now I think there's a real normalization and understanding that like, of course, that's true. And, um, that's not something that like, can be questioned. I mean, it's just not something that can be questioned. It’s historical fact. And it is something that we have to reckon with. Um and I think the, there's something very affirming for, in my experience, people don't want to feel gaslit [laughs]. They want to feel like it is racist, I, this racism that I'm feeling is real. I, and, as a first step, I think there's a lot of power to just hearing people regularly and comfortably name that racism. Um that changes dynamics. And then, um, I think creating and celebrating affinity spaces for people to gather collectively among their inside groups, um, is really important, um, in supporting those spaces, and not feeling insulted or left out of spaces, but rather like lifting up those spaces as like vital components to combating systemic racism. Um those are just some initial steps, I think that we, I’ve seen taken late that have created positive change.
CA: I think I'd next kind of like to take a step back and and, kind of um, talk more more broadly. Um, I mean, all of the things that we talked about, I mean, sound incredibly challenging to go through, like, just from a, uh, having to live through kind of a (perspective). Um do you have any kind of, thoughts about how kind of, um, the pandemic and kind of all of that that entails, um, has affected the mental health of of people who actually like are are living through it while incarcerated?
MM: So there's a couple of ways I think, I think the increased isolation has sort of stirred a lot of the paranoia that exists. Um I think it's impacted sort of a paranoid, hmm, a certain paranoid, um, feeling that can exist within prison. I always say like, for example, retaliation is in the eyes of the beholder, right. So you can never convince some, someone that something happens to them is retaliation or not. And it's always almost impossible for us to tell if something happens because of retaliation or any other reason. And the other thing I'd say is that when you're in prison, it's really hard to know if something is malicious, or if it's just from incompetence. And it's really hard to like, differentiate between those two things. And so I think that there's a sense of like, increased paranoia, among our clients. Um you know, I hate to like, celebrate resilience, and to like, talk about it in this way, that's like valorizing. But I also think it's important to acknowledge that like, going, and you're going to experience this as a young lawyer, and I think this is like, the best lesson that anyone ever taught me was like, you're gonna feel there are moments of life where you're gonna feel completely out of control, that things are really hard. And you are going to make a conscious choice to like, continue to plow forward. And the power of like making that choice and doing that will build and make you stronger for the next time. And in, I think that the ways that that's done for people who are incarcerated are like more extreme, and harsher and awful, and like, I'm not valorizing them as they are. But I do think that many of our clients have been through so much that their capacity to find their way through the chaos is higher, then a lot of other folks.
CA: You talked, uh, about the kind of paranoia around uh, some of this. I would you kind of connect that to, um, like a distrust of of the prison system itself? Um is that kind of the, the, um, scope of of of where that's kind of connecting, or um, how how would you kind of explain that?
MM: Yeah, I think certainly a distrust of the prison system itself. I mean, we had clients who were just very disheartened by the prison's reaction. And, um, and just sort of a heightened sense of, of, of issues. And then we had, you know, just a number of clients die, some of them with COVID, some of them without COVID, um, over this time, and I, and I think the additional stress was certainly contributing.
CA: Did that kind of paranoia transfer to like vaccines? Um.
MM: It did not for us uh primarily because I think we just worked incredibly hard on that front. Um although certainly within the community, I saw that our clients were vaccinated at a pretty high rate. Now, I will say this, um there was a moment where they were being paid for the flu shot. And that caused a tremendous amount of paranoia among our clients because they had never been paid for the flu shot before and that felt like, ‘what are they giving us?’ And we had to, um, act as conduits for that. But but um, [sigh], we just worked really hard with our clients on this issue and then the voice of the exonerated, uh Voice of the Experience sorry, which is a vote, which is a local nonprofit that's run by directly impacted people here just did like really great education and outreach within the system. And I and there was just like a pretty decent, I think we're at like 85% within the prison pretty quickly.
CA: Wow, that's pretty good. Um, what about, does that include like prison officials? The guards?
MM: No, no. Correctional officers are, I, I don't know what the percentage is but I would not be surprised if it was very low.
CA: Um you mentioned, um, the soon to be justice uh (Ketanji Brown Jackson) and kind of how that felt to watch, um especially, I mean, those hearings were were, brutal. Um but I mean, she obviously has like a background as a public defender. And I mean, she at least seemed to express some some kind of good opinions about criminal justice. And and, um, I mean, she has been successfully, uh, appointed. Um, kind of taking a broad view, do you think that, there there are good things, um, in the future of these kinds of fights? Like, are are you hopeful about that kind of a thing?
MM: You know, in the long term, I'm very hopeful. Um because I think in the long term, you know, we're in a moment of backlash right now. And there will always be these cycles, and that we have to just try our best to um, get through these, these sort of backlash moments, but in the long term, things will move in a positive direction. Um so for the most part, I'm optimistic. I, I worry, [pauses]. Yeah, for the most part, I'm optimistic. I think, um, yeah, I'm optimistic. I have kids, I have to be optimistic otherwise (why am I doing this?) [laughs].
CA: That's true. That's true. Um we've almost reached the, the end of our time, and I wouldn't want to, um, put any pressure on your obligations that I'm sure you have. Um, so just kind of wrapping things up. Um, do you think your perspective on your role as an advocate and and how you can affect change have really changed? Um I mean, you it sounds like you, uh, have been doing this for quite a while pre pandemic, I mean, has has your views kind of on your, um, all of these things, and where you fit into that, has that really changed at all, um, over the pandemic?
MM: I mean, I will say that the sort of universal litigation losses were, um, [pauses] they were disheartening to me. Um and I think that, um, you know, then the loss of, of Justice Ginsburg, um, those two, those two things sort of um left me feeling like, um, we needed to expand and rethink how we were going to make change and um imagine new and different ways to do that. And, um, that's okay, right? Um it's okay, that that, that, you know, the way that I thought in law school, I was going to create change, and the way that I am going to create change might look a little different. Um and I think um, so I'm so I think, yes, um, as as an advocate, as a litigator, as a person who has identified as a civil rights lawyer, I think that we have to continuously rethink how we're going to create change, and we have to be nimble. And this is a this is a system as I, as I like to say that was built over hundreds of years, and it's going to take a really long time to dismantle that system. And so, yeah, I think in that way, um my view of the of the tool of litigation has changed substantially.
CA: Then I guess, just final question. Um is there anything else you'd kind of like to add? Any any kind of final message kind of overarching lessons that you you'd like on the record? Um,
MM: I think, we covered quite a lot of my little uh, [laughs], um, you know, I'm grateful for this project. It’s really honestly, it's, um, I'm a little self conscious about being the topic of something like this. It's not really normally how I work or think of myself and it's actually useful for me to like, take a step back and think about our role and all that stuff. And I think um it's, it's a lot like things have changed very quickly. And we've had to adapt and I don't know that we've done we've always done so consciously, and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, because I think we've just like adapted ourselves in really quick ways, but it is useful and helpful and kind of, um, affirming, if I could say that, to like have an opportunity to talk about myself in this way that I don't ever think of about myself. So I just appreciate that.
CA: Yeah, I mean, I, maybe it feels like the focus is is is on you in a in a unique amount but, uh, I mean the the project really is is a collection of voices, you know?
CA: We don't need you to have all the answers it's, it’s, um,
MM: yeah, no, it's just no one ever asked me these things, you know? [laughs]
CA: Yeah, um, here, let me end the recording, um.