By Andrew Cohen
Some believe law students are limited in the real-world impact they can make. Good luck convincing Chris Deragon, who calls the efforts of Mei-Wah Lee ’18 and Zahraa Hadi ’18 “instrumental” to his recent release from San Quentin Prison.
Students with Berkeley Law’s Post-Conviction Advocacy Project (PCAP), which help California life-sentence prisoners navigate the parole process, are asked to make a 14-month commitment. Lee and Hadi spent more than twice that helping Deragon.
“Words cannot express my gratitude for the time and effort they put in on my case,” he says. “They did unbelievably amazing work. … Their guidance and attention to detail prepared me to talk about my conduct both before and during prison in a meaningful way that took accountability for my actions.”
Convicted of first-degree murder (he was not the shooter) and second-degree robbery for a crime he committed as a high school senior, Deragon spent more than 22 years in prison. Lee and Hadi met with him regularly since November 2015—their first semester at Berkeley Law.
“We discussed everything he’d have to talk about at his (parole) hearing and made sure he was ready to do that in a way that reflected his true feelings,” Lee says. “We also conducted mock hearings and raised various scenarios that might occur.”
At San Quentin, Deragon worked a full-time job and earned his associate’s degree. He also participated in the Victim’s Offender Education Program, which helps prisoners explore traumas that led to their crimes, expands their understanding of how criminal actions affect victims and families, and challenges them to be accountable for their choices.
Another program called Guiding Rage into Power gave Deragon “a greater understanding of my emotional needs and triggers” and helped him “identify how I responded to certain scenarios, develop coping mechanisms, and practice moving forward in a healthy way.”
Growing up outside Detroit, Hadi “saw a lot of people head down the same road Chris did.” Before law school, Lee spent 3½ years at a federal public defender’s office, working closely with detained clients.
Their approach with Deragon, Hadi says, prioritized “being consistent, treating Chris with respect and empathy, and making ourselves available to provide legal and moral support.”
Going into his parole hearing under attorney supervision, Hadi “knew Chris had done everything he could do, but the outcome is still difficult to predict. There were moments in the hearing where we thought, ‘Okay, he’s in good shape,” and others where we thought ‘Uh-oh, maybe not.’ We had faith in Chris, but it’s such a subjective process.”
PCAP students are supervised by Keith Wattley, founding executive director of the Oakland nonprofit UnCommon Law, which works with long-term California prisoners to gain their release and provides training to improve their representation at parole hearings.
“Sadly, prisoners who appear before the parole board with a state-appointed attorney have very different experiences and outcomes,” says Wattley, recently named to the first class of Obama Foundation Fellows. “State-appointed attorneys meet with their clients only one time before the hearing, providing no opportunity to create the kind of supportive relationship that’s critical to exploring the personal and difficult subjects they must address in order to be successful.”
PCAP is part of Berkeley Law’s unique Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects, which allow first-year students to gain practical legal experience while serving the disenfranchised. Led by second- and third-year students and supervised by attorneys, these pro bono projects involve direct client service, legal research, educational outreach, and community organizing.
Seven to ten new students participate in PCAP each year. Since the group’s launch in 2013, its clients have a 64-percent release rate—a stark contrast from California’s average of around 20 percent.
For Wattley, Berkeley Law’s “unique commitment to social justice and its proximity to San Quentin’s large population of life-sentenced prisoners create the perfect fit for students seeking practical learning opportunities in a meaningful capacity.”
He praises Lee and Hadi for helping Deragon understand and address the factors contributing to his crime, and working with his family and others to create supportive post-release plans. “They also had to help the parole board understand how to apply new laws requiring special consideration for those convicted of murder in their youth,” he says.
Release and reflection
Two weeks before Deragon’s hearing, Lee and Hadi sent the parole board a detailed packet with his post-release plan. It included a summary of where he planned to live, transitional programs that accepted him, support letters on his behalf, and documentation of his participation in prison programs, among other materials.
Yet even after working with Deragon for more than two years and monitoring the three-month review process after parole was granted, neither student could prepare for seeing him reunite with his family.
“It was indescribable, probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ll ever have,” Lee says. Hadi calls it “such an emotional day for everyone involved.”
Now in the midst of a six-month transitional housing stint, Deragon has job offers in carpentry and woodworking. Both students stress that many challenges remain for him and other released prisoners, from gaining employment with a salary sufficient for the Bay Area’s rental market to adjusting to life after incarceration.
During breakfast with Deragon and his family after his release, they saw him pick up a menu, close it slowly, and put it down. “This is so weird,” he said.
“It was a powerful moment for me, and a reminder that the effects of incarceration extend well beyond the moment these individuals are released,” Lee says. “They have to grapple with how to re-enter society, a process that involves many small things most of us don’t even realize we take for granted.”
This fall, Lee and Hadi will begin working at law firms in Washington, D.C., and New York City, respectively. Both cite their PCAP work with Deragon as a life-altering experience.
“I didn’t realize how much I would change as a result of this,” Hadi says. “It shifted a lot of preconceived notions I had about prison and parole.”
The way society treats prisoners “is a barometer of how we think about others generally,” Lee says. “It’s critical for programs like PCAP to exist, to help these people and to open law students’ eyes to structural inadequacies in the system and the need for reform.”