PRISONERS’ LEGAL SERVICES OF NEW YORK
WHO WE ARE AND WHAT WE DO
Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS) was founded in 1976 under the sponsorship of the New York State Bar Association in response to the devastating 1971 Attica riot. The PLS founders sought to address one of the major reasons for the riot – the lack of prisoners’ access to the courts and the almost complete absence of attorneys to present their complaints in a legal forum. Established initially through a federal grant, PLS has been funded almost exclusively by the State of New York during the past 40 years.
PLS has four regional offices located in close proximity to all New York State prisons: Albany, Ithaca, Plattsburgh and Buffalo. The provision of civil legal services to low-income persons is PLS’ mandate. PLS’ mission is “to provide high quality, effective legal representation and assistance to indigent prisoners, to help prisoners to secure their civil and human rights and to advocate for more humane prisons and for a more humane criminal justice system.”
PLS provides critical civil legal services to over 51,000 inmates confined in 54 New York State prisons – prisons that are located across the State from Buffalo to Albany and from the Canadian border near Plattsburgh to New York City. PLS provides prisoners with non-violent ways to resolve disputes thereby reducing tensions and hostility and helping create a safer environment for prisoners and correctional staff alike.
PLS receives over 10,000 requests for assistance annually and we answer every letter we receive. In order to do this, we have over 75 client educational memos that address specific areas of the law. We also publish a bi-monthly newsletter, Pro Se, which is distributed to over 8,500 New York State prisoners at no cost. Pro Se advises prisoners of changes in the law, publishes practice pieces to assist them in complying with statutory and regulatory requirements, and explains technical aspects of various laws affecting prisoners.
By counseling and advising prisoners regarding their rights and the merits of their claims for the past 40+ years, PLS has earned the trust and respect of incarcerated New Yorkers, their families and loved ones.
PLS' PRINCIPLE ACTIVITIES
Direct Civil Legal Services: Each year, PLS provides direct civil legal services, without charge, to more than 10,000 indigent prisoners incarcerated across New York State. PLS provides this underserved population with legal representation on a myriad of civil legal issues associated with conditions of confinement in addition to offering prisoners counsel and advice regarding their rights and the merits of their claims.
Mental Health Project: PLS’ Mental Health Project (MHP) specifically focuses on the needs of youth under 21 and veterans who suffer from mental illness. PLS has a unit that specifically focuses on these two populations because they are two of the largest segments of the prison population and are among the most vulnerable prisoners. Youth under 21 and veterans experience higher rates of mental illness than are experienced by other groups of prisoners. Through PLS’ MHP, eligible clients obtain the mental health care they need and PLS works to ensure that they are not subjected to conditions, such as long-term solitary confinement, that will exacerbate their mental illness.
Family Matters Unit: PLS’ Family Matters Unit (FMU) assists incarcerated parents in challenging prison disciplinary proceedings that result in suspension or termination of visitation with their children, drafting child visitation petitions, providing representation in court on visitation and support petitions, helping clients access court records, enforcing visitation orders and drafting child support modification papers. The Unit provides a critical resource to incarcerated parents; helping them maintain family ties during their incarceration and removing one of the major barriers to successful reintegration – the accumulation of insurmountable debt as a result of child support arrears.
Immigration Unit: PLS provides representation to detained immigrants facing deportation hearings providing critical legal assistance to one of our most vulnerable populations. In one recent case, PLS represented an individual who was wrongly placed in removal proceedings. After presenting the case to an immigration judge, the judge terminated the removal proceeding. After being released, our client was able to reunite with his mother and sister. Without PLS’ help, this person would have been wrongly deported to Jamaica, a country that he left over a decade ago.
Pro Bono Partnership Program: In July 2011, we created the Pro Bono Partnership Project (PBPP), a comprehensive program which includes partnerships with law firms, community agencies and law schools statewide. We also work with the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) and various county bar associations to identify possible pro bono counsel. Through this project, over sixty (60) individuals and firms have been recruited to accept cases, and hundreds of prisoners have had legal representation that they otherwise would not have had.
Albion Telephone Program: The Albion Telephone Program involves a partnership between the DOCCS and PLS. Since its inception, over 300 women have received legal assistance on numerous issues including evictions from pre-prison housing, identity theft, medical and mental health care and child visitation and custody.
PLS Newsletters: PLS publishes two bi-monthly newsletters. Pro Se, advises prisoners of changes in the law and explains technical aspects of various laws. Pro Se is distributed to all prison law libraries, over 8,500 individual prisoners and over 200 organizations and practitioners. In June 2012, PLS began publishing Essentials of Life: A Newsletter Dedicated to Helping Women Face the Challenges of Prison Life. Since our first publication our readership of Essentials of Life has grown from 25 to approximately 150.
PLS Client Educational Materials: PLS produces and provides over 75 educational memos on various prisoner rights issues.
Partnerships with Law Schools & the Courts: PLS partners with law schools to provide training and mentoring for students who work via work study, clinics, internships, externships or pro bono.