Bringing Legal Education to Those Most Affected by the Law

Anthony Niedwiecki
Anthony Niedwiecki, Dean of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law

By Noah Austin

Maureen “Mo” Onyelobi had taken the Law School Admission Test twice before, years ago. She took it for a third time on April 10. 

“I was really nervous,” she says. “I felt a lot of pressure, because I wanted to do well, and I didn’t know what to expect.”

The following day, Amwati “Pepi” McKenzie got his first opportunity to take the LSAT. 

“At the time, I was in the moment, so I focused as much as I could on taking the test,” he says. “Afterward, I sat … and thought about it and became super excited. I stayed up all night thinking about that moment. It was awesome.”

Nervousness, pressure, focus, and excitement — they’re all things you would expect from any law school candidate. For Onyelobi and McKenzie, though, the test carried added significance born of their circumstances, the hopes they carry with them, and the dreams that once seemed out of reach.

Onyelobi and McKenzie are incarcerated at the Minneapolis area’s Shakopee and Stillwater state prisons, respectively. On those two days in April, they joined a handful of incarcerated people known to have taken the LSAT in a prison facility and the firsts since 2016.

That milestone was pivotal for both of them, but also for a collaborative effort — one involving a law school, multiple nonprofit organizations, and even the Minnesota Department of Corrections — to extend legal education to those arguably most affected by the law. If successful in Minnesota, this effort could be replicated nationwide, giving formerly and currently incarcerated people a chance to add their diverse voices to the world of law — and an opportunity to help those facing the same circumstances.

“Our prison system is set up to be punitive, and not necessarily to try to fix the issues that might have led a person to prison,” says Anthony Niedwiecki, dean of the Minneapolis area’s Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and the proctor for Onyelobi’s LSAT. “We need to expand our thinking of what should be done to support these people.”

McKenzie says he’s proud to be a pioneer in that change. 

“Being the first is always good, especially if what you’re the first at opens doors for others to be successful,” he says. “It means a lot to know that I’ve set a precedent.”

Onyelobi, too, is embracing her groundbreaking role. She once thought her dreams of earning a legal education and practicing law had ended when she entered prison in 2014. However, she says she knows firsthand how valuable her perspective would be in the world of law. 

“You can’t learn some of the things I know in a classroom,” she says. “We can help with so much, because we understand what it’s like to be here.”

A new perspective

Years ago, Emily Hunt Turner was working in Minnesota as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. One of her cases involved a 41-year-old Black man who had been a model tenant for decades but was denied housing in a majority-white area because of an offense he’d committed as a teenager. Unable to find suitable housing in Minnesota, he ended up having to move out of state.

For Turner, the case was a tipping point that caused her to focus on what she calls the “perpetual exclusion” faced by formerly incarcerated people. In 2018, following a fundraising push that included a successful Kickstarter campaign, she founded All Square — named for the idea that people who have done their time should then be “all square” with society, but often aren’t. Through a fellowship program, All Square invests in formerly incarcerated people with leadership potential. The organization’s 12-month curriculum is anchored in personal and professional development, and includes a grilled-cheese restaurant where fellows work and learn skills; courses on entrepreneurship, personal planning, interpersonal skills, and other topics; and individual or family therapy for those who want it.

“If you have a year of deep investment in you, and whatever activates you, and the things you care about, how can we meet you where you are to build on that?” Turner says. 

The model has proved successful, and early last year, Turner and her colleagues were talking about replicating it elsewhere. But the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer changed everything, Turner says.

“Instead of replicating the model, we decided to launch a subsidiary to draw up a public interest law firm to really dive into jurisprudence and the legal space.” It’s a new way for All Square to approach the concept of justice reform, she says.

From that effort, and a partnership with fellow nonprofit Until We Are All Free, came an ambitious idea: a way to formalize something Turner notes has been happening among incarcerated people for a long time. 

“There’s a law library in almost every prison in the country,” she says. “That’s because, in a lot of circumstances, they’re fighting for their own liberty. They’re becoming very skilled at the law on the inside, but there are very few pathways to access the [legal] discipline at large.”

Thus, the Prison-to-Law Pipeline (PLP), which All Square envisions as a way for currently incarcerated Minnesotans to earn JD and paralegal degrees approved by the American Bar Association. The PLP’s first cohort — Onyelobi, McKenzie, and six prospective paralegal students — commences this summer. Initially, the cohort will take existing courses at Shakopee and Stillwater correctional facilities, with a law school eventually providing the JD component. The law firm that All Square is building will then partner with the PLP and employ its graduates, regardless of whether or not they’re able to obtain their legal license, once they leave prison.

It’s important, Turner adds, to remember that legal education is valuable to all incarcerated people, not just those who one day will be able to use it outside of prison. 

“There’s so much legal work that someone can do — legally and safely — from the inside,” she says. “We’re really looking to use this whole movement to start dissolving some of the walls that divide our community.” The message, she says, is simple: “Whether you’re here or there, we see your talent, we want to partner with you, and we want you to lead the way.”

There are significant hurdles to clear. Funding the program will be a challenge, and while All Square has committed to finding funds in the short term, Turner is optimistic that contributions from state bar foundations, organizations such as the American Bar Association and the Law School Admission Council, law schools themselves, attorneys, and law firms can provide a consistent, reliable revenue stream. 

“It’s going to take a collective will from the legal community,” she says.

Cooperation from the Minnesota Department of Corrections will also be vital to making the pipeline function, but multiple people interviewed for this story credited Paul Schnell, the department’s commissioner, for being open to the idea. Another issue is finding a law school that’s both willing and equipped to offer JD classes to incarcerated people. And that’s where Dean Niedwiecki, and Mitchell Hamline School of Law, could one day complete the puzzle.

Opportunity for those who need it

In many ways, Mitchell Hamline is an ideal fit. The result of a 2015 merger of William Mitchell College of Law and Hamline University School of Law, the school boasts the first-ever ABA-accredited hybrid JD program, which allows students to tailor their education to their needs via a mix of in-person and online classes. It’s in keeping, Dean Niedwiecki says, with the school’s long history of “providing a legal education to those who don’t traditionally have the opportunity to go to law school.” And that flexibility and technological prowess could go a long way toward creating a workable model for incarcerated law students.

Mitchell Hamline also has a history of working with currently and formerly incarcerated people. For a half-century, the school’s Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners (LAMP) clinic has represented incarcerated people on civil legal matters, such as family law and litigation on prison conditions. “When I first started doing this work, the separation between people who were incarcerated and people in the community wasn’t that great,” says clinic director and Mitchell Hamline professor Brad Colbert. LAMP, he adds, is a way to bridge that growing gap.

The LAMP clinic spawned Mitchell Hamline’s Reentry Clinic, which is run by Jon Geffen, a former student of Colbert’s. 

“Brad and I did a lot of work with people who had recently been released and were still suffering consequences [of their incarceration],” Geffen says. This led him to begin thinking about ways to help people “achieve their dreams and live the life they want.” 

Geffen points out that when it comes to partnering in a pioneering effort to extend legal education to incarcerated people, Mitchell Hamline checks all the boxes. 

“We are the only entity doing dedicated reentry legal services in the state,” he says. “Brad is the only person doing dedicated LAMP services in the state. Our dean is passionate about it. We have a history of being innovative and creative. … Our mission is to provide these types of innovative services that help change the inequities in society and the legal profession.”

But what, in particular, can currently and formerly incarcerated people offer the profession? According to Dean Niedwiecki, a great deal. 

“They bring a perspective about the things that led them to prison,” he says. “Also, their involvement with the justice system brings a different perspective. A lot of [law school students] have never had that experience; they’re thinking more in theoretical terms.” Further, he says, extending legal education to such people amplifies their perspectives — on policing, the prison system itself, or other related issues — and allows law schools to become a catalyst for change.

Finally, there’s the credibility a formerly incarcerated lawyer would have with their clients. 

“What a vision it would be to have somebody — let’s say in a public defender’s office — meeting with somebody and saying, ‘When I was at Stillwater …’” Geffen says.

Dean Niedwiecki says offering these opportunities helps reduce the stigma around people who have been incarcerated, enabling them to more easily return to society and become successful. 

“We’ve been in a place, for a long time, where we place people in prison and forget about them,” he says, noting the disastrous harm wrought on communities of color by the War on Drugs. “The more we can normalize how we’re treating prisoners, and what we’re doing to let them back into society with skills that improve their, and others’, lives, the better we will be.”

The Reentry Clinic and the law school in general have been working with All Square since the nonprofit’s inception. Building on that existing relationship, All Square met with the school’s leadership to discuss the Prison-to-Law Pipeline and the possibility of Mitchell Hamline providing the JD component. It quickly became apparent, Dean Niedwiecki says, that being able to administer the LSAT in prison was a critical hurdle to clear. 

“I said, ‘We have to get the LSAT out of the way; let me see what I can do,’” he recalls. 

Dean Niedwiecki reached out to Law School Admission Council, the organization that produces and administers the LSAT, and LSAC, in turn, provided a paper version of the test that could be taken into the prison.

LSAC understood the complex issues affecting law school candidates with criminal records. In fact, LSAC published a research paper in February 2021 entitled “Justice-Impacted Individuals in the Pipeline: A National Exploration of Law School Policies and Practices.”

“The ABA and individual law schools have an important role to play in ensuring the integrity of legal education and legal practitioners, but we should not allow prior involvement with the criminal justice system to be a disqualifying barrier to law school,” says Elizabeth Bodamer, Ph.D., who co-authored the report with Debra Langer. “Justice-impacted students can bring a unique and vital perspective to the law, so we welcome the opportunity to work with schools and organizations that are working in this area.”

The LSAC report notes “approximately one in three adults in the United States has some form of a criminal record—similar to the ratio of adults with 4-year college degrees in the U.S. The wide reach of the criminal justice system, including police contacts, arrests, and incarcerations, is heavily concentrated in poor communities and communities of color. Therefore, it is important to examine the use of criminal records in the law school admission process in order to ensure that admission and education policies and practices do not unintentionally serve as mechanisms of exclusion that disproportionally impact applicants of color and low-income applicants.”

Test Day

The candidates were ready. All that was left was to wait for test day.

Onyelobi, who’s serving her sentence at the women’s prison in Shakopee, prepared for the LSAT using a variety of prep materials, but says the official practice tests available on LSAC’s website were the most helpful and provided a “good feel” for what the actual test would be like.

Dean Niedwiecki, who hadn’t been inside a prison since he was in law school, found the environment at Shakopee ideal for proctoring the LSAT. 

“It was like a classroom,” he says. 

However, when he went to the men’s prison in Stillwater for McKenzie’s test the next day, he faced more of a challenge. Without a dedicated room in which to administer the LSAT, he and McKenzie had to make do in the room where lawyers were meeting with their clients. 

“Next time, I will require that they give us something a lot more quiet,” he says.

McKenzie, who answered questions for this story via email, agrees that the noise in the room was an issue. 

“The day of testing was akin to studying in the unit — lots of noise and banging,” he says. 

McKenzie is also currently studying for his bachelor’s degree, so preparing for the LSAT became his unofficial “weekend class.” 

“In the end, I had the proper materials, but I didn’t have the time to process and apply the knowledge,” he says, admitting that he struggled on the logic games section of the test, in part, because he only began to prepare for that section three days before his scheduled LSAT. “Time is a crucial element to being successful in any endeavor,” he says.

While there were challenges, both exams were proctored successfully. Dean Niedwiecki says that in addition to ensuring a quiet place to test, future administrations of the LSAT in prison will need to include prep programs and other pretest support for the test takers. 

“I was energized because they were so excited and really dedicated to doing this,” he says. “I felt like there was a sense of pride; they were just really proud to be able to do it. Prison can really strip you of that type of pride, even before you go in. This really kind of lifted up their own self-worth, in a way, and I think it gave them a lot of hope.”

It was an excellent experience, he adds, and he’d do it again in a second.

Onyelobi and McKenzie are representative, All Square’s Emily Hunt Turner attests, of the unutilized talent that exists in prisons all over America. If the Prison-to-Law Pipeline is a success, she says it’s something that could be replicated in other parts of the country. 

From her conversations with these first two budding legal scholars, Turner says, “There is something so beautiful about being able to channel your humanity when you’re a living, breathing human who happens to be on the other side of those walls.” 

For McKenzie, the opportunity to earn a law degree started out as a pursuit of “personal liberation.” As he learned more about the law, though, he began to see it as an opportunity to help others help themselves. 

“I’m not pursuing a law degree to help others; I’m pursuing a law degree to empower the powerless,” he says.

As for Onyelobi, while she knows there are those who will never forgive her past, she says what she’s doing now proves that people can change. 

“I’m a strong believer in God, and I believe forgiveness is necessary to move on in life,” she says. “We’re constantly changing and evolving. Nobody is the same person they were 10 or 20 years ago, or even a week ago.” Being a pioneer in bringing legal education to incarcerated people, she adds, is an honor she doesn’t take for granted. “It gives me a sense of pride again — a sense of purpose,” she says. “I never thought I would have this opportunity.”

About Noah Austin

Journalist

Noah Austin is an award-winning journalist, based in the Phoenix area, who contributes writing and editing to the Law School Admission Council on a freelance basis.