Pro Bono Partnership Program

In 2011, PLS received a generous anonymous donation to help fund the creation of PLS’ Pro Bono Partnership Program (PBPP) with the goal of expanding services to incarcerated individuals by recruiting attorneys to represent incarcerated persons on a pro bono basis.

In the first year of the program, a dozen volunteers contributed more than 200 hours of service; in 2015-2016, more than 100 volunteers provided over 9100 hours of pro bono service!

How does the referral process work?

The PBPP receives cases from PLS attorneys and conducts an initial review of the merits and timeliness which may involve requesting records, conducting legal research, or interviewing the client. Upon determining that a case is appropriate for review, PBPP staff will contact volunteers individually to assess interest and arrange for a case referral. Once the case has been accepted by a volunteer, s/he will be the attorney of record (formally or informally) and all questions from the client will be referred to the volunteer so long as the questions are related to the referred matter. PLS respects our volunteers’ time and energy and make a concerted effort to ensure that clients do not bombard volunteers with unrelated legal questions.

At the conclusion of each case, an evaluation is sent to the client and the attorney so that PLS’ PBPP can continue to improve.

What kinds of cases do you refer to pro bono counsel?

The Pro Bono Program refers the following types of cases:

  • Excessive use of force/brutality (typically federal §1983)
  • Challenges to disciplinary hearings (Article 78)
  • Inadequate medical and mental health care (advocacy/litigation)
  • First Amendment rights (advocacy/litigation)
  • Parole, medical parole and reentry issues (advocacy)
  • Applications for executive clemency (advocacy)
  • Immigration (asylum, Convention Against Torture, Early Conditional Parole for Deportation Only and Conditional Parole for Deportation Only (advocacy/litigation)

I’ve never taken a prisoner case before. Can I take a referral?

Absolutely! It is important to understand that, because prisoners’ rights litigation is nuanced, there is a steep learning curve for the first couple cases. PLS, therefore, will provide support to newer volunteers including reviewing papers and discussing litigation strategies.

We can also enter into a co-counsel arrangement where one of our attorneys will work alongside you; this is typically referred for federal litigation.

I don’t live in/near the cities where your offices are located. Can I still volunteer?

Yes! We frequently have remote projects geared towards students and law graduates. Further, since the majority of communication with incarcerated clients is done via snail mail, it is less important that a volunteer be geographically near the client. Where a face-to-face meeting is required, PLS will assist as possible, to arrange the visit and prepare the volunteer for a prison visit. It is important to note that clients may be transferred, at any time, at DOCCS’ discretion so, while a volunteer may want to restrict cases to a specific geographic region, PLS has no control over where/when the client is transferred.

Will I get bombarded with emails?

PLS’ PBPP is, truly, a holistic program, which strives to provide volunteers with an educational, engaging and supportive experience. Volunteers identify the types of cases they are interested in and PBPP staff conduct one-on-one case matching (no blast emails) based on the criteria set forth by the volunteer.

I really want to develop litigation skills. How do I do that?

Prison cases rarely involve trials; most cases settle. Attorneys, however, may have the chance to engage in discovery, depositions, motion practice and even oral arguments in many types of cases. Challenges to disciplinary hearings, for example, are frequently appealed to the Appellate Division, requiring oral arguments.

We seek to assess each volunteer’s goals and limitations so that we can efficiently refer cases.

Benefits to Volunteering with PLS’s Pro Bono Program

  • CLE credits (one credit for two hours of pro bono work; up to ten credits for experienced attorneys and six for newly admitted attorneys)
  • Free training and support, including samples of petitions, complaints, advocacy packets, and cultural competency training on working with incarcerated persons
  • Liability insurance
  • Use of PLS office space or equipment
  • Access to Westlaw
  • Protecting and fighting for the rights of folks who have no other available resources; PLS’ Pro Bono Program is the only program in NYS to refer individual, civil pro bono cases for incarcerated New Yorkers

The PBPP is always seeking pro bono volunteers, including Attorney Emeritus and Pro Bono Scholars, and welcome the opportunity to answer any questions you may have. Rest assured, as a pro bono attorney, you will receive the support and assistance necessary from PLS and the PBPP to ensure your client has the highest quality of representation.

If you would like to volunteer with Prisoners’ Legal Services, please complete our
Attorney Registration form and return it to

Thank you for your assistance!

To read more about PLS’ historical ties to ground-breaking pro bono work, click here.

Elijah Miller and William Henry Seward

In the early nineteenth century, two attorneys – Elijah Miller and William Henry Seward – formed a law firm in Auburn, New York, the site of New York’s second prison (and the first execution by electric chair), and one of the oldest functional prisons in the country.[1]

Elijah Miller’s reputation grew with his pro bono representation of “Delaware John,” a Native American accused of murdering Ezekiel Crane, an early settler, in 1803. Mr. Miller argued that the proper charge was manslaughter and not murder, as Delaware John shot Mr. Crane by mistake, thinking he was someone else. Unfortunately, the jury did not agree: they found Delaware John guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging.

Elijah Miller speedily appealed to the Governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment, but the Governor denied the request. Delaware John was executed on August 17, 1804.

Similarly, William Seward’s celebrity grew with his pro bono defense of William Freeman, a black man accused of murdering a white family in 1846. Having already served a five-year sentence at Auburn Prison, prior to the murder, Mr. Freeman was known to be “deaf and slow of wit, with a constant, vacant smile.”[2]

At the trial, Mr. Seward argued that Mr. Freeman was insane at the time of the incident. A plethora of experts testified to Mr. Freeman’s mental state and the jury ultimately determined that Mr. Freeman was competent to stand trial. In his closing argument, Mr. Seward made an impassioned plea, claiming that Mr. Freeman was “still your brother, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race – the image of our Maker.” Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. Regrettably, Mr. Freeman passed away in the summer of 1847, before the new trial concluded.

Mr. Miller’s and Mr. Seward’s law firm, Seward and Miller, went on to become one of the original two predecessor firms of the New York City law firm Cravath, Swaine and Moore, LLP, which counts current PLS Board Member David Miranda among its partners.[3]

Attica: The Bloodiest Day in America’s Prison History

On September 9, 1971, an altercation between two incarcerated persons at the Attica Correctional Facility resulted in their placement in isolation. Upon rumors that the two would be tortured, tensions escalated and on September 10th, over 1000 prisoners took control of the prison.

The state police were able to regain control of part of the prison, but the inmates retained control in Cellblock D and held 40 hostages, including officers and civilian staff. The prisoners issued a set of demands that included an end to slave labor, guard brutality, segregation due to political beliefs, and the right to practice their religion and have legal representation at parole hearings, along with better living conditions.

A group of negotiators formed to communicate with the prisoners, including PLS’ Board Member and former NYS Senator, John Dunne. Many of the inmates, negotiators and observers, asked then-Governor Rockefeller to come to the prison and speak with the prisoners in person. Gov. Rockefeller refused and, on the morning of September 13th, sent in state police to take back the prison.

The state troopers unleashed a fury of tear gas and bullets on the prison and, at the end, thirty-nine people (ten hostages and twenty-nine inmates) were dead – all from gunshot wounds.

Following the uprising, a special state commission investigated and reported on the incident. Robert B. McKay, then-Dean of New York University’s Law School, served as the Committee Chair, and Arthur Liman, as the General Counsel for the NYS Special Commission on the Attica Prison Uprising (aka the McKay Commission). At the time of his appointment, Mr. Liman was a prominent New York attorney with the firm of Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

As General Counsel for the Special Committee, Mr. Liman selected a group of thirty-six full-time lawyers and other staff to assist in the investigation and reporting. Mr. Liman forfeited his lucrative corporate practice to work on the report, relocating to Wyoming County. He even dined with the inmates at Attica on Christmas Eve to allay any fears that there would be a whitewash of the riot.

The Commission issued its report in September 1972, chastising New York State prison authorities for their poor planning and their quick embrace of lethal methods to subdue rebelling prisoners. The report also criticized Governor Rockefeller for his refusal to visit the prison before ordering armed state troopers to enter. Finally, the report found that inmates needed a mechanism to air their grievances both within, and outside, the prison walls.

Following the publication of the McKay Commission Report, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973, and at the behest of then Chief Judge of the Third Appellate Division, Hon. Clarence J. Herlihy, Albany Law School started a prisoners’ rights clinic, under the tutelage of Professor Daniel Moriarty. Two years later, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York opened its doors.

[1] “Auburn Correctional Facility,”, last modified 5/25/14. According to the article, the “Auburn system” that was created at this prison contrasted the “penitentiary system” developed by the Quakers by focusing on hard labor and work. “Prisoners were compelled to work during the day, and the profit of their labor helped to support the prison. Prisoners were segregated by type of criminality into different locations within the prisons and by the use of special clothing. The traditional American prison uniform, consisting of horizontal black and white stripes, originated at Auburn prison. The prisoners had their heads closely cropped and walked in lockstep, keeping step with their heads bowed. Each prisoner placed a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him to maintain a rigid separation. There was a communal dining room so that the prisoners could gather for meals, but a code of silence was enforced harshly at all times by the guards. Thus, the inmates worked and ate together, but in complete silence. At night the prisoners were kept in individual cells (even though the original plan called for double cells).”

[2] “Cayuga County Courthouse and the Case that Helped Establish the Insanity Defense in New York,” UCS Benchmarks, Journal of the New York State Unified Court System, Spring 2007,
http://www.nycourts/gov/publicaions/benchmark/issue6/Courthouse.shtml, last updated 4/30/07.

[3] The Cravath Firm and its Predecessors, 1819-1947, p.46, Robert T. Swaine, originally published 1946, Ad Press,


Volunteering & Pro Bono Services