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Some Bad News

This morning, as I was on my laptop, an e-mail came across my screen:
“Laurie, I’m afraid I have some terrible news…our son took his own life yesterday….I thought you should know, as he cared very much about you (as do I).”

Their son was my client. As I endured the initial stun and shock, the tears began. I let out a good, long cry, not only for this client, but for my many other clients whose voices are not heard, rather silenced by those who hold power over them and fail to use it for good. Memories of my client began pouring through my head; his struggles with severe anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions, a brain injury, and drug addiction. He was in and out of college and, despite all of the trouble he underwent, wanted to have a career and independence. I recalled
the long talks that we had and how I always tried to support him and show him that I truly cared about his wellness, to instill in him the idea that he mattered.

My client had just turned 34-years-old last month. When he was 21, he was in a tragic car accident that resulted in the death of his passenger, his arrest for Homicide by Vehicle and DUI, and ultimately a Traumatic Brain Injury and a significant worsening of his anxiety. After serving some time in state prison, he came home to a period of parole and probation, as well as the loss of his driver’s license for an extended amount of time. Most recently, he was trying to get his life together. He sought out medical and mental health care, worked, and attended college. He loved music and strived to have a career related to this passion. He had a very good heart and was always kind. He was appreciative of all that I did for him.

The criminal justice system failed him. Even while I was able to assist him with a civil rights case that we brought against a local prison’s medical department for their failure to properly wean him off of his anxiety medication, he still continued to suffer from being unable to move forward with his life. His independence was compromised by his remaining license suspension, which had been in effect for the last twelve years, since his arrest for Homicide by Vehicle. Still, right before he passed away, an administrative agency refused to restore his license and he faced having to wait even longer to drive. His mental health issues and drug addiction also held him back from achieving all I knew he was capable of.

I care deeply for my clients. They become family. Although I am prideful of this empathetic quality, it unfortunately can manifest in my carrying their disappointments and setbacks heavy in my heart. This suicide weighs painfully on me as I reflect on what could have been done to help my client. Sometimes, punishments that are applied rigidly to keep the community safe—such as Driver’s License suspensions and long jail sentences—do not sufficiently consider the well-being of the person against whom they are imposed. Then, for my clients who are all-too-quickly deemed dangerous, safety is the exact opposite of what is being enforced. Death, physical injury, worsening of mental illness and drug addiction are consequences of their unaddressed struggles.

The goals of the criminal justice system should equally consider the well-being of the person being punished as well as the safety of the community. Another client of mine, who is currently incarcerated at a local prison and whose medical department is neglecting to take her to an orthopedic specialist for two broken bones in her leg, is in extreme danger of permanent damage to her limb and her mental state. The most recent Judge in front of whom we appeared refused to release her for outside medical treatment due to her history of absconding and arrests for drug use. While this may be a ‘good’ result for the safety of the community, what is wrong
with a just decision to release my client to obtain treatment which addresses her safety? She could be placed on house arrest, monitored, and then returned to prison after she receives critical and life-saving medical care; a good middle ground considering the safety of all.

Another client with special needs, convicted of downloading pornography, is unnecessarily suffering because the state prison’s medical department refuses to give him his prescribed ADHD medication, something that he needs to understand the sex offender classes that he is required to complete. Sure, the community is ‘safe’ on paper, but if the offender can’t comprehend and understand what the classes are teaching, what is the point? This is another
example of the criminal justice system’s failure to make choices that consider the needs of the offender and the community.

I hope and pray that I never receive news like this again. To the judges, prison officials, probation officers, state parole officials, and others who hold power and influence in our criminal justice system: please get to know the men, women, and children whom you supervise. They are all human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, care, and compassion. My client mattered. His life mattered. May his life and my message make a difference in the future of our criminal justice system.

Prison and Criminal Justice Reform Through “Mann-Up”

Yesterday I had the privilege of being a guest at the “Mann-Up” Day of Acknowledgement at SCI Phoenix, a state prison in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. I was invited to attend by one of my clients, an inmate at SCI Phoenix, the Master of Ceremonies and one of the leaders of this wonderful organization. My client told me about this group on each occasion that we interacted over the past few months, encouraging me to come experience a meeting. Yesterday’s graduation ceremony honored and celebrated the many incarcerated men who successfully completed 15 weekly Saturday morning sessions of “Mann-Up.” 

From the moment that I entered the corridor on the way to the East Chapel of the prison, I was greeted with handshakes, smiles and warm friendly hugs from the inspirational leaders of “Mann-Up.” I felt at home and honored to be a part of this experience. Many of the men knew me as a result of the kind words said about me by my client and were so grateful that I was there to take part in this celebration.

          For three hours, without any of the distractions that I experience in my life outside the prison, I immersed myself in the joy, tears, laughter, talent and growth of about 150 to 200 incarcerated men who reached today’s milestone. Guests included the supportive Superintendent, Tammy Ferguson, State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, representatives of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, a Pennsylvania Prison Society volunteer, pro bono attorneys who help this organization, and two former SCI Graterford/SCI Phoenix inmates, role models who embody the ideals of “Mann-Up” with their successful lives outside of the prison.

           I was honored to hear the voices of the talented “Mann-Up” leaders who showed us how much they have grown through their words, songs, musical arrangements, skits, dance and art. The expressions of the community and institution leaders also added great meaning to the day. What impressed me most was the ability of the “Mann-Up” leaders and participants to speak words of gratitude from their heart to the hearts of men and women inside and outside the prison who helped and supported them to reach this day. The special day in the chapel was a spiritual experience with the graduates responding loudly with firm conviction: “Mann-Up!” in response to the speakers’ words.

          One of the participants sang “The Greatest Love of All,” a song of beautiful words which reflect the ideals of “Mann Up.” These highly motivated and driven men have taught themselves that they cannot go back to their lives outside the prison until they make themselves right inside. Their painful and grueling journey to make themselves better gave them a big sense of pride.

          The leaders of “Mann-Up” have some great ideas about how to change the world – they want to use their time to go on supervised leaves outside of the prison to work towards changing the paths of so many youth in Philadelphia who make bad choices to become involved with drugs and guns, leading to deaths of innocent children, mothers and other loved ones on the streets and long periods of incarceration when they are caught.

           We also heard from a small group of elder lifers, who introduced themselves by telling us their age and the number of years that they have been incarcerated. One gentleman was in his 80’s; many were in their 70’s and at least one had been in prison for over 50 years. I saw firsthand why it is an unnecessary expenditure of taxpayers’ money to keep someone in prison until they die. These men have grown and changed for the better; they are not the same person that they were decades ago when they entered the jail as teens and young adults; and releasing them will not endanger our community. Why shouldn’t their good behavior and positive adjustment in prison be considered to let them out after 20 or 30 years of punishment so that they can have the opportunity to reunite with their families and to age and die with dignity? While imprisonment should be a punishment, it should not be a death sentence for lifers who have demonstrated outstanding and exemplary behavior during their incarceration.

           Blessings to the wonderful men who created “Mann-Up” and may they all continue on their worthwhile journey to change themselves and our world for the better. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to experience this program and I look forward to watching this organization blossom into something huge and impactful. 

Expungement of a Child Abuse Record

From The Philadelphia Lawyer – Summer 2018

Laurie Jubelirer recalls a woman who was referred to her in 2015. In the 1990s, the woman had been a foster mother to a young boy with behavioral issues. When the foster mother determined that she could no longer care for him, the child falsely reported that she was abusing him. The complaint led to an indicated child abuse report on her record. “Because of the false report,” says Jubelirer, “my client, who worked as a certified nursing assistant, was unable to pursue her goals of going to nursing school, working in a hospital, working with seniors and working with children.” Jubelirer explored every avenue to clear her client’s record, ultimately pursuing an expungement proceeding on behalf of her client. “After the first hearing, the administrative judge denied our request to expunge my client’s indicated child abuse record,” Jubelirer recalled. Following an appeal to Commonwealth Court, the case was remanded to an administrative law judge who ruled in favor of Jubelirer’s client.

Judge backs bullied charter school student

by Martha Woodall, Inquirer Staff Writer

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has sided with a student at Tacony Academy Charter School who said he was bullied and then wrongly expelled.

In an order filed Thursday, Judge Linda Carpenter overturned the expulsion of Romeo Glover, 18.  She said evidence did not support the charter’s contention that Glover had instigated an after-school attack near a bus stop involving a classmate who had been tormenting him for months.“The neutral adult witnesses testified that [Glover] was the victim of the fight and that another student had a knife,” Carpenter wrote.

The judge also found that the school violated Glover’s rights by failing to follow state law in the expulsion hearing. She said the school’s “evidence” amounted to a summary of undated, handwritten statements from other students. The students were not under oath and did not testify, and Glover’s attorney was not able to question them. Carpenter wrote that “it appears that the school rubber-stamped the decision of the school’s principal and the lawyer that represented the school here in court.” Glover, now a senior, said Friday,  “I’m happy. Justice  is served.”

Laurie R. Jubelirer, the attorney who represented Glover and his parents, Fatima and Randy, said she and her clients were pleased with Carpenter’s order reversing the expulsion. Jubelirer said the Glovers believe the ruling “shows how important it is for people to stand up for themselves when a school violates a student’s rights.” Both Naimah Holliday, Tacony’s principal, and the law firm that represents the school declined to comment Friday. Glover and his parents maintained that charter school officials had berated him for not reporting the bullying, and that a counselor told him it was his fault the assault happened because he had not told about the abuse. Glover said that although he did not use the word bullying, he had told Holliday about being pelted with erasers but she brushed it off. Under court order, Glover had been permitted to remain at Tacony during the appeal.

In an Inquirer and Daily News interview in February 2016, Glover, then a junior at the charter at 6201 Keystone St., said he had endured months of bullying from another male student. He said he was taunted almost every day by the student, who called him gay, threw erasers at him in a stairwell, and made slurs because of his long hair. Glover said others observed the behavior but were too frightened to say anything because the other student was popular and had a reputation for fighting. The insults came to a head on Jan. 8, 2016, at a bus stop on Torresdale Avenue, Glover said, when the other student showed him a pocketknife and warned him to stay away from a young woman whom Glover was dating.

Glover said that student and others then attacked, punching him in the head and kicking him after he blacked out and fell to the ground. Although the assault was witnessed by four neighborhood residents who gave statements, and Glover had a police report and records from Nazareth Hospital, where he was treated for bruises, Tacony suspended and later expelled him. The findings of fact adopted by the Tacony board in an expulsion hearing in February 2016 said that some students told the principal that Glover and two other students had attacked the alleged bully. The board voted to expel Glover immediately.

After Glover and his family appealed, Carpenter held a hearing last April. She sent the matter back to Tacony and directed the charter board to hold a new hearing. Jubelirer asked the charter to use an impartial hearing examiner to preside at that hearing instead of the school’s attorney, but the charter declined. Following the second expulsion hearing in August, the Tacony board voted again to expel Glover. Carpenter’s ruling on Thursday was based on documents submitted by both sides and a hearing in December on the second appeal. Glover “intends to graduate this spring,” Jubelirer said. The school, she said, is disputing course credits he took during the summer and is requiring him to make up those credits to graduate. Jubelirer added: “He does intend to make up these courses so that he will graduate this spring.”