Blog Entry 5
Just like when you play Monopoly, going to jail is no fun. It is, however, instructive to me and my students. Most immigrants detained by the Department of Homeland Security in Michigan are housed at the Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek. Needless to say, this is not the most convenient location for either detainees’ families or their attorneys, given the nearly two hours drive from Detroit.
This past Saturday morning, one of my law students and I set off early in the morning for the jail in order to visit three of our clients. One client, a young man from Russia, has his trial on Tuesday so my student needed to prep him for the direct and re-direct examinations. Another client, a woman from Lebanon, has been detained for more than one year and we needed to advise her regarding her right to appeal a negative decision. The third client will likely be released this next week, following a successful lobbying effort on our part to convince DHS that he is not a security threat or flight risk and he has friends in the community who can care for him.
In terms of the legal work to be done by my student and me, it was pretty straightforward and we talked on the drive about how he was going to approach each client and address their needs. Working with clients in a jail setting, however, is anything but straightforward. We had to have our visit pre-cleared days in advance by the jail staff, we had to check in with the officers on duty, we had to limit what we were carrying to not provide detainees with weapons that could be used against us or others, and we had to run through contingency plans in case of a problem.
For example, the young man from Russia has significant mental problems and can be violent. He was brought to meet with us shackled at the ankles but his hands were free. The student and I had previously discussed how we were to place ourselves in the interview room to not be threatening to the young man but to be in a position where we could easily get help quickly in case he became violent. We also discussed prior to the meeting our planned approach to the client and decided that we should take control of the interview from the first moment and then, when he saw that we were in control, allow him to ask questions.
I actually learned this technique from a recent book by Malcolm Gladwell called What the Dog Saw which features a chapter about Caser Millan, aka the “Dog Whisperer”. Millan explains that dogs need to know who is dominant or they will assert their own dominance. That is not to equate a client with a dog but, in order to ensure the encounter was productive, we used this tactic to our advantage and, ultimately, to the advantage of our client because he was calmed by our assertiveness and did not feel pressured to assert himself before he knew the rules of engagement. This is a very different strategy than students and I use with clients who are not psychotic or potentially violent.
Again, jail visits require an inordinate amount of planning and forethought but they are useful exercises for students to assess their ability to function in an unfamiliar environment where they have to play by someone else’s rules. The clinic offers a unique chance for students to enter a world very different from their own.