Wayne Law scholar serves as advocate for prisoners' rights


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Jaime Nelson, a law student at Wayne State University, was recently named the 2018 Dawn Van Hoek Scholar by the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan Foundation.

"I am deeply honored to have received the 2018 Dawn Van Hoek WLAM Scholarship, named after a Wayne Law alumna who spent her career fighting for indigent clients and public defense," said Nelson, of Detroit, who is slated to graduate from law school in 2019.

The WLAM makes financial awards to female law students at each of Michigan's law schools. Scholarships are determined on the basis of the students' demonstrated leadership capabilities; community service in such areas as family law, child advocacy or domestic violence; commitment to diversity; and potential for advancing the position of women in society.

Nelson directly worked for Van Hoek at the State Appellate Defender Office. When she won the scholarship, she told Van Hoek: "I cannot adequately express to you just how truly honored I am to receive this scholarship in your name. I have long admired your career fighting for indigent clients and public defense. I recall seeing you for the first time as you were testifying at a legislative hearing on behalf of SADO. I was inspired by your confidence and passion in how ardently you were advocating against indigent defense funding cuts. It was clear to me that you were a leader in that fight, and you became someone I looked up to because of it."

Nelson went on to call Van Hoek a trailblazer for women attorneys.

"Given that I have seen representations of women in the legal profession since I was a young girl and that I am surrounded by so many women in law school right now, I can sometimes forget that this has not always been the case. It was not until I spoke with women who graduated in the 1960s and 1970s that I began to realize just how much of an uphill battle each of you faced to simply be admitted to law school and hired as attorneys, let alone rise in the ranks to positions of power like yours at SADO."

Born in New Prague, Minn., Nelson grew up in Kalamazoo. In 2007, she graduated with from the University of Michigan, where she majored in sociology and minored in urban and community studies. She has been involved in various organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Women's Co-Op, W.K. Kellogg Foundation Leaderquest, Washtenaw County Workers Center, among others. Calling herself a natural advocate and a natural arguer, she felt that made her a natural fit for law.

"As a community organizer, I loved training and empowering people to be able to advocate for themselves, as the ones directly impacted by injustice," she said. "However, I often felt frustrated because my personality is much more inclined to go on the direct attack as opposed to teaching others to do it. I also saw the power the law holds to move officials on issues, even the mere threat of legal action, and I want to have direct access to that kind of influence."

Starting her junior year at U-M, she volunteered for the Prison Creative Arts Project for 10 years, eventually becoming the coordinator of statewide partnerships. She facilitated creative writing and theater workshops with prisoners of both genders and helped select art and organize events for the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.

"I have had no singular more formative set of experiences than facilitating creative arts workshops with prisoners, and by extension studying and critiquing America's prison industrial complex from a firsthand position," said Nelson. "The media and politicians can scare us into thinking we need to incarcerate 25 percent of the world's prisoners, that prisons make us safer, that racial disparities are an unfortunate byproduct of the prison system, and that all prisoners are essentially evil human beings who can never again be trusted in society, but the second a person meets actual incarcerated individuals and works closely with them, that narrative falls apart."

She continued: "Examining mass incarceration up-close politicized me and gave me the tools and a lens through which to understand all of societal inequality and injustice and motivated me to do the work I'm doing today. Art was the way that PCAP sought to break down these barriers and expose people to the humans who are locked up. Plus, creating art, especially for someone like me who doesn't typically consider herself an artist, was challenging and fun."

From 2011-15, Nelson worked for the Legislative Corrections Ombudsman in Lansing, where she investigated prisoners' complaints.

"Our job was to essentially provide the legislature with an independent source of information about the issues taking place in the Michigan Department of Corrections, and to respond directly to constituent complaints involving the MDOC - whether those complaints came from prisoners themselves or family/friends," explained Nelson. "When a prisoner would file a complaint with our office I would typically interview him in his housing unit, and then interact with prison staff and department officials to get answers to my questions. The most common complaints involved staff abuse/retaliation and medical concerns."

The job wasn't inherently dangerous, according to Nelson. She spent hours interviewing prisoners from all security levels, including maximum security, and was "never once even threatened verbally," she stated.

"Prisoners almost always saw representatives from our office as people there to help them, which is a different story from the antagonistic relationship they often have with corrections officers," said Nelson. "Prisons are incredibly secretive institutions, which can be a breeding ground for abuse and corruption. Our office was the only entity allowed full access to the MDOC outside of department staff themselves."

For Nelson, the most challenging part of the job wasn't the credibility of the prisons although that was always an issue but the refusal of the MDOC to acknowledge it had made legitimate mistakes and to fix them.

"Our office had no direct enforcement power other than the legislature deciding to affect the MDOC budget, so even when we had indisputable proof that the MDOC was violating its own policies, we couldn't force them to act," she said. "Certainly, there are great staff and wardens working in the MDOC, so I don't want to demonize everyone, but this was certainly the biggest challenge."

During law school, Nelson lived abroad twice in Guatemala, exploring international human rights issues.

"I went the first time in the summer of 2016 to learn Spanish. I had many friends who went to language schools in Guatemala and I knew they were affordable and a great way to learn the language," she said. "I had contacts and a cheap place to live as a result of my first stay in the country, so I decided to go back to a place I knew so that I could work on my Spanish and stay connected with the social justice/human rights groups I made connections with the first time around. I would absolutely love to visit and work in other Spanish-speaking countries though!"

Upon graduation next spring, Nelson aspires to a career in public interest law. However, she admits she is unsure exactly what form that will take at this particular time.

"At this moment in time, I think I'd really like to have my own firm one day where I'm able to fund civil rights-related casework through taking on paying clients, perhaps in the area of criminal defense. However, I can also see myself continuing to work for the SADO if I'm lucky enough, or perhaps for another public interest law agency/organization," said Nelson. "Wayne Law has given me great opportunities to pursue my passion for public interest, and this award has only strengthened my resolve to become an attorney that represents the people who need it most."

Published: Mon, Aug 06, 2018