In March, as people began adjusting to online classes, working remotely, and social distancing, Berkeley Law’s alumni and student prisoner rights advocates knew their clients lacked the same ability to protect themselves from COVID-19.
Before long, National Center for Youth Law attorneys Neha Desai ’06, Melissa Adamson ’17, and Matthew Bedrick ’19 played key roles in gaining emergency relief for children in federal immigration detention facilities. After weeks of litigation, a federal judge ordered the release of detained minors or (for those without vetted family members or sponsors) their transfer to a setting that satisfies COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“Soon after we filed our temporary restraining order, staff members and children in multiple facilities throughout the country tested positive,” says Desai, the center’s immigration director. “One medical professional described not removing detained youth as ‘leaving them in a burning house.’”
Desai, Adamson, and Bedrick all visited detained immigrant children before COVID-19 appeared. Their team and two partner organizations sought to enforce a settlement agreement that sets national standards for the detention, treatment, and release of minors in federal custody.
“Detaining children interferes with healthy development, exposes them to abuse, undermines educational attainment, exacerbates pre-existing mental health conditions, and puts children at greater risk of self-harm,” Adamson says.
Berkeley Law students with the Prisoner Advocacy Network also sprung into action, helping develop a litigation guide that informs state prisoners how to seek release through a petition for writ of habeas corpus related to COVID-19.
Supervised by attorneys Caitlin Henry and Taeva Shefler, chapter co-directors Ben Holston ’21 and Melissa Barbee ’21 and seven other students collaborated with law students from Harvard, Penn, and NYU. They also helped write a guide for administrative appeals inside California prisons and an overview of other routes to release.
“We all recognized the urgency,” Holston says. “It has been inspiring to see so many students doing what they can to help.”
Excerpts from the guides were published in Prison Focus (which has a 2,500- plus circulation), and a webinar by Tiara Brown ’22 has more than 4,200 views.
California prisoners are often housed in close quarters, and ongoing lawsuits claim that constitutionally adequate medical care is not provided — which would increase the number of prisoners who develop medical conditions and make COVID-19 more threatening.
“A temporary sentence should not turn into a death sentence just because a prison fails to take care of its incarcerated population,” Barbee says.