Champlain Law and Criminal Justice students visit prisons across the state to teach incarcerated individuals concepts they’ve learned in class.
The Prison Law Initiative (PLI) is an internship created by Champlain College Professor of Law and Criminal Justice, Stephen Miller. The program allows Law and Criminal Justice students to put what they’ve learned in the classroom to work by providing 24 hours of legal education at each of the six correctional facilities in Vermont. Miller, who has been teaching legal education to incarcerated individuals for over 15 years, founded the PLI when he arrived at Champlain seven years ago.
In this program, Champlain interns create and teach curricula in courses such as: Criminal Law, Vermont and Federal Rules of Evidence, Conditions of Confinement, Post-Conviction Relief Motions, Fourth Amendment Rights, and Improving Computer Legal Research Skills. Miller’s goal is to not only to teach inmates the law, but also make them an expert on their own case.
“This is an internship where students are giving just as much as they’re getting back. Inmates know the law from their own experiences, while students have learned it from their books and classes. Each have something to learn from the other.”
Once interns are fully vetted by Miller and the Vermont Department of Corrections, they can officially begin their first day.
“Coming into prison for the first time is a daunting experience—especially the sound of the doors slamming. In a prison, only one door opens at a time,” Miller observes. “It’s a process for interns. They begin by observing the class, then by taking an active role in the class, and when they feel ready, they help teach the class.”
Law major Alana Baker, ‘21 explained before graduating that she felt the PLI internship truly helped her learn about the real world. “My favorite part was definitely the law library tutoring,” Baker said. “One inmate and another intern and I would go into the St. Albans prison law library and assist the inmates with legal research, writing, and looking over their own cases. It’s really cool to sit one-on-one with an inmate and hear their story.”
2021 Law graduate Maggie Maloney’s main goal post-graduation was to become a judge, with the hope to become a Supreme Court Justice one day. She wrote an essay about her final day of the internship, titled “We Can’t Hear the Rain.” In it, Maloney writes about a conversation she had with an incarcerated individual, in which she explained how she likes to listen to the sound of rain at night. The inmate responded, “We can’t hear the rain. The roofs are shaped to make the snow slide off; rain doesn’t make a sound. I look outside and see it’s raining but don’t hear a drop. That’s the sound I miss the most from when I was out of prison.”
Maloney says the conversation affected her in a way that learning in a classroom never could. Her essay ends by asking, “I wonder what else inmates miss that society will never know about.”
“I am extremely appreciative to the Vermont Department of Corrections who has given such generous access to the PLI interns,” says Miller.
Due to Covid-19 restraints, the PLI is not currently being offered to Champlain students. Miller and the Champlain College community hope to continue the program as soon as it is safe to do so.