Lifer School workshop at Berkeley Law helps parolees ‘tell their story’

Maddie Fruman/Staff

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Lifer School, an annual workshop designed to educate lawyers, students and advocates about California’s parole process, was held at the UC Berkeley School of Law on Saturday.

The workshop, sponsored by UnCommon Law and the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Pro Bono Program, taught participants about how to successfully navigate the parole hearing process in order to be released. Lifer School featured a panel of several formerly incarcerated leaders in the program who explained how attorneys, as well as people who do not know how prisons operate, can support prisoners up for parole in the process.

With the introduction of new policies, almost half of California prisoners will be eligible to appear before the parole board for release. Lifer School is designed to instruct participants on the policies and procedures of this process, as well as to offer strategies to develop better attorney-client relationships.

“It’s a very unique role for an attorney,” said Keith Wattley, founder and executive director of UnCommon Law. “Our primary role is to help (the parolees) tell their story. … We have to be aware of all those different ways our clients have even impacted … long before our clients came to prison, (and) explore the ways in which those traumatic experiences led to some of the decisions they made.”

Wattley has advocated for prisoner and parolee rights for more than 20 years and has been recognized by former president Barak Obama. Wattley is a 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow and serves as co-chair of the Institutional Review Board for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

UnCommon Law has aided the release of 216 life-sentenced clients through the organization’s mission of accessing justice through “healing-centered mental health and legal counseling,” according to the organization’s website. UnCommon Law hosts workshops such as Lifer School to train prisoners, lawyers, family members and law students on the most effective techniques for parole hearing representation.

Lifer School started in 2000, aiming to eliminate the barriers that obstruct proper representation in these hearings. According to Wattley, in hearings that last for three or four hours, the attorney may only speak for 10 or 15 minutes. Wattley emphasized the need for the attorney to interpret and translate information to the parole board.

A critical element of representation is understanding a client’s trauma, according to Wattley. He added that it is important to explore the ways in which traumatic experiences seem to have led to some of the decisions that clients have made.

“That’s part of the reason this relationship takes a while,” Wattley said. “They don’t have a lot of trust in us.”

He said attorneys should realize the ways in which clients’ experiences have impacted them and explain to the parole board their “arc of transformation.”

Laverne Dejohnette, a former UnCommon Law client and panelist at the workshop, described the importance of the healing process that occurs between prisoners and their loved ones while participating in the process.

“You have to give your loved one permission to tell the truth,” Dejohnette said. “You have to face what you did or what you did not do.”

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LangholzSasha‏.