Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic Provided Legal Support Throughout Year


By Clinic Staff

Social Justice Bluhm Legal Clinic
Sheila Bedi, clinical professor of law and director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic

Over the past year, the CJCRC has provided legal support to anti-violence organizers, secured justice for wrongfully-targeted Chicagoan Darren Cole, challenged CPD’s gender-based violence, and much more.

Hosted over 300 national advocates at the Prison Law and Advocacy Conference

In May 2022, the CJCR clinic hosted the Prison Law and Advocacy Conference (PLAC) (formerly known as the Prisoners’ Advocates’ Conference). PLAC is the biennial conference for attorneys and advocates who represent and work with people living in jails, prisons, and detention centers throughout the United States. This is the only national gathering of people who practice what is commonly known as prisoners’ rights law. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke provided opening remarks, and poet, lawyer, and MacArthur Fellow Dwayne Betts provide the closing keynote. Programming included Plenary Sessions on Decarceration, Race, Power and Privilege, and concurrent sessions on Prison Litigation with an Abolitionist Ethic, Innovative Legal Approaches to Advocating for People in Custody, Voting Rights Behind Bars, and more.

Secured Early Release for Niyeh, a chronically ill Transwoman Confined in a Men’s Prison

In February 2022, CJCR students and faculty welcomed Niyeh home from prison. Niyeh lives with several chronic illness and during her time incarcerated in a men’s prison, she survived the daily indignities of invasive cross-gender strip searches, showering in plain view of cis-gendered males, verbal insults and misgendering, as well as constant implicit and often explicit threats of physical and sexual assault. Despite all of the trauma Niyeh has survived, she still found the strength while in prison to reconnect with family, build meaningful friendships, and plan for a career in service to other LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness or criminalization. As a result of the clinic’s advocacy, the Illinois Department of Corrections restored Niyeh’s good time and released her in February 2022. Niyeh is currently living in Chicago and adjusting to a new life back home.

Providing Legal and Policy Support to Young, Black and Brown Anti-Violence Organizers

CJCR faculty and students represent Good Kids/Mad City (GKMC)–a youth organizing group led by Black and brown young people–in their policy advocacy related to the Peacebook Ordinance, a legislative proposal that would fund young people to work as peacekeepers in their local neighborhoods. The Peacebook ordinance also promotes the use of City funding for mental health and community-based resources. In June 2022, a diverse coalition of Chicago City Council members introduced the Peacebook and the ordinance is currently pending in City Council.

Securing Justice for Darren Cole, who was Harassed by the Police for over a Decade Because of a Clerical Error

Along with our co-counsel First Defense Legal Aid, the Clinic successful represented Mr. Cole in a federal lawsuit seeking to end the police abuse harassment he suffered because of a case of mistaken identity. Since 2006, the CPD continually abused and harassed Darren by subjecting him to over sixty unconstitutional detentions during which its officers have threatened him with their guns; verbally and physically assaulted him, and at times detained him for many hours. CPD continually targeted Mr. Cole because he shares the same name and birthdate as an individual with an outstanding warrant. On multiple occasions, Mr. Cole has pleaded with CPD officials to correct their records to reflect that he is not the Darren Cole with the outstanding warrant. CPD and City officials ignored Mr. Cole’s pleas. CJCR students were prepared to litigate a preliminary injunction, but two hours before the hearing, the city agreed to implement a number of measures that would protect Mr. Cole from further harassment. The CPD arranged to have the problematic warrant withdrawn, updated its data management systems to reflect that Mr. Cole is not subject to the warrant, sent a repeating message to all police units indicating that there is no outstanding warrant for Mr. Cole, read the same message to all CPD officers at role call for several days and confirmed that Mr. Cole is not listed as in CPD records as a gang member. After resolving Mr. Cole’s injunctive claims, and winning a hard fought Motion to Dismiss, the legal team negotiated a resolution of his damages claims in the Winter of 2022.

Challenging CPD’s Gender-Based Violence

CJCR students and faculty drafted a federal lawsuit on behalf of the estate of Irene Chavez, a queer Afro-Latina who died in the custody of the Chicago Police Officers after they arrested her for a misdemeanor while she was in the midst of a mental health crisis. In the Washington Post coverage of this case, Professor Sheila Bedi described how this case is consistent with a “long-standing pattern of Chicago Police ignoring people with mental health issues and often those same cases lead to death or serious injuries.” Chavez “was crying out for help and they ignored her,” said Bedi, who added that Chavez should have been taken to a hospital for treatment. “That was the most harmful thing. That being the moment the [police] made the decision to arrest her as opposed to getting her the help she clearly needed was the most tragic decision they made.” CJCR students and faculty are currently conducting discovery on this matter.

Seeking Justice for Black Trans Women

In a collaboration with Vanessa del Valle from the MacArthur Justice Center, our clinic settled two cases on behalf of Strawberry Hampton, a Black trans woman who survived sexual and physical violence while in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections. We settled the case the same day the Court granted our motion for a “trans qualified jury.” The motion requested that the Court order a series of screening processes so that potential jurors who harbored transphobia and/or anti-gay bias would be excluded from the venire. We argued that voir dire would be insufficient to eliminate transphobic jurors because transphobia is so prevalent—particularly in communities that look like those in the Southern District of Illinois. We could find no precedent for such a motion, yet clinic students produced a persuasive and compelling argument. The case ultimately settled because of our students’ work on this motion.

Supporting Community-Based Demands for Justice & Reparations

Clinic students and faculty support two Black-led, community-based organizations by providing research and creating print resources for community members. In collaboration with Equity and Transformation (EAT), students participate in bi-weekly meetings in which they engage in the practice of visionary organizing—meaning they work with community organizers to create and build out innovative ideas and initiatives meant to benefit underserved communities. Clinic students have supported EAT by providing research assistance on the organizations’ nascent campaign to secure reparations for survivors of the War on Drugs. Students also collaborate with west-side based organization Healing Hands Resource Center to create a re-entry toolkit for formerly incarcerated individuals with cannabis convictions.

Launching the Boyd Barnett Fellowship Program

In January 2022, Professor Bedi launched the Boyd Barnett Fellowship Program. This program provides Chicago-based organizers, activists, and advocates working on issues of injustice in Black and brown communities with access to legal education and advocacy training. This is a first-of-its kind program that creates a national model for law school collaboration with social justice movements while developing community capacity for public advocacy. In this seminar, fellows, and law students with a demonstrated commitment to racial justice learn together and explore how legal strategies and social movements intersect.  Organizers become grounded in legal concepts related to race and justice; law students are introduced to the ways the law can help (or stymie) movements for social change. The organizer fellows will participate in panel discussions and guest lectures at the law school during the 2022-2023 academic year.