Free

Yesterday I visited a client in prison. As his lawyer, I was able to meet with him in the quarantine unit where prisoners are housed for their first 30 days without access to visitors except attorneys and clergy. A series of guards escorted me through successive parts of the complex as I made my way toward the quarantine unit, one guard passing me off to the next on the other side of a containment door.

The hallways were claustrophobic: thick concrete, flickering florescent light, air somehow sterile and foul-smelling at once. A breath of oxygen came as a relief when one guard escorted me outside and we descended a metal-cage staircase into the yard. As we walked briskly across the yard, prisoners singly or in pairs passed by us with seeming purpose, en route to or from surrounding buildings and gates.

The sky was overcast, the feel of coming rain in the air. I looked up at the landscape rising beyond the walls of the prison: a crag covered with forest but for a gash of exposed granite. Low heavy clouds made the formation feel close, looming over us. I recognized it: the granite quarry. The access roads, now derelict and overgrown, make unofficial running trails. I had learned the route up to the ancient quarry from high school peers who sneaked out of class early to dive into the granite-bowl pools on hot days late in the school year. We did not realize at the time that convicts had carved those pools and built their own prison from the stone.

On a run a few weeks ago I had been exploring side trails near the quarry when I came to a clearing for power lines carrying electricity toward the prison, affording an unexpected view into the complex below. It was too far to see much more than the outlines of walls and buildings, yet I felt voyeuristic. I heard shouting. I shuddered and resumed my run after a few moments.

From inside the prison yard I was struck by the sight of this place of illicit, youthful freedom so near and yet unattainable. As we crossed the yard, the guard asked, “Have you been here before?”

“No,” I replied, “but I’ve been there,” gesturing toward the quarry. “There are running trails. You can see in from up there.”

“Really? You can probably see our firing range. I’m surprised they let people in there. We shoot into those woods for target practice.”

“Good to know. I’ll run faster next time.”

We reached a gate and another guard brought me inside the diagnostic unit. I waited for my client in a tiny room the size of a confessional booth. Unlike the rest of the facility lined with thick concrete, this room had thin walls. There were gaps between the door and door frame through which the guard outside could almost certainly hear our conversation. My client, a big guy, arrived and was clearly uncomfortable in the close quarters. I had to give him the cruel news that his housing discrimination claim had resolved in his favor, securing his housing for another year, the very day that he had been sentenced to secure housing for four years.

He did not want to talk long. He was uncomfortable for other reasons, too, suffering withdrawal from prescribed pain medication that they refused to provide in prison. His chronic back injury was inflicted by a guard during his previous term at this prison.

As a disability rights attorney, I felt an impulse to advocate for him to receive the medication, but our office does not handle individual cases regarding conditions of confinement, with good reason: these wrongs are so numerous and so difficult to vindicate that we cannot afford to use our limited resources on them. Instead we advocate for community services that help keep people with disabilities free from confinement in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, and other forms of segregation. Legal aid attorneys generally work “in the trenches” on such one-off cases without systemic impact because Congress has prohibited them from filing class actions; however, Congress has also prohibited legal aid offices from representing people in prison.

So my only recourse was to refer my client to a private attorney, whom he cannot afford, or his public defender, who similarly lacks the capacity to litigate conditions of confinement, allocating precious resources to keeping people out of prison. Our meeting ended after a few minutes with the disquieting mutual awareness that I was no longer useful to my client, and that no one was.

Later that day, back at my office, the rain began. I looked out my window and, despite the weather, felt the need to be outside. I sneaked out of work early and headed for the trails.

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