Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tuesday Blues

“How can you do that? How can you visit a guy serving a life sentence?”
“What do you mean?” I reply.
“Well, you were his lawyer, right? The client was convicted while he was your client, right?”
“That’s right. Either I or someone else in our office was his lawyer. But, yes we visit our folks in prison,” I answer.
“And you all just keep showing up - years after the case is over? That has to be tough? What do you talk about? Doesn’t he hate you? Doesn’t he want to kill you?”

I get these questions somewhat regularly. They usually come from other lawyers – criminal defense lawyers at that; folks accustomed to resolving tough situations for tough characters. They have forged their own way in dealing with difficult outcomes. Some have learned to confine their passions and expectations to the courtroom (perhaps the safest place to land). Some might want a deeper relationship (or impact) . . . but lack the apparatus to attempt it. And I haven’t even mentioned the dearth of resources.

I work for a grassroots legal organization, The Georgia Justice Project (GJP), which expands the notion of a lawyer’s role past the case. The idea of extending our relationship with clients after the case is over often produces reactions like the one I describe above. I try to explain our approach, our long-term commitment and relationships with clients.

We visit to affirm the potential of our client. We visit to remain connected. We visit to affirm the dignity and worth of our clients. I talk about our landscaping company – started 16 years ago to create jobs for our clients released from prison. I talk about our client gatherings – attempts to create and maintain community with our folks. I talk about our social service staff. I talk about our efforts to transform the initial need for a lawyer into something bigger, something more redemptive, an opportunity past the law.

This week I received a surprise. On Tuesday, during the middle of the day, one of our volunteers walked back to my office and said I had a visitor. “Marvin is here. Blue?” the volunteer said – half asking, half curious about this additional appellation.

Blue is here! My heart skipped a beat. I could not believe it! I heard he was in a Department of Corrections transitional center right outside of the city, but I had yet to see him. And here he was - unannounced, unplanned, a surprise!

There is something about seeing someone you have visited in prison for 20 years walk through your doors as a free man. There is a joy that I can only vaguely experience in comparison to his. But joy nonetheless consumed me when I saw him on Tuesday.

Consistent with his nickname that day he was dressed in blue. Dark blue dress pants and matching vest. A striped blue shirt – buttoned all the way up so show off the tie that brought the outfit together. As I walked up to the chair in the lobby, a wide smile spread across his face. He knew it - he knew he had made my day. He didn’t want anyone to call ahead and alert me. He wanted it to be a surprise and he had succeeded.

GJP’s founder represented Blue in the mid 1980’s. A drug deal gone bad – resulting in a life sentence. He has been in prison more than 24 years – over ½ of his still young life. His case and appeals have long been over. But part of our approach is to stay with our folks – in prison or out. Though only about 3-5% of our clients receive further jail / prison time as a result of the case, our commitment is to stay with them.

Blue was someone I always felt would do well once out. He found an amazing attitude in prison. He was positive and upbeat without being unrealistic. He did the best with where he was. Though confined with no clear hope of ever getting out, he made sense of his life, realizing he has the ultimate power – the power to change himself.

Blue is working. He has a great attitude. Blue, I believe, will do well. He already is. He is, in many ways, already a miracle.

Many lawyers experience the practice of law as a disconnected undertaking. By this I mean that the experience is not simply the result of the rational and dispassionate analysis for which we are trained. The practice can enhance (or even create) a deeper alienation from “the other,” from ourselves, from justice, and from our sense of community.

At the heart of GJP’s work is a thirst for connectedness: relationships that transcend the normal attorney-client bond, relationships that benefit those most forgotten and the broader society. This thirst for using the law as a beginning and not merely an end, is core to GJP’s approach. This thirst has kept me connected to this work for over 20 years. This thirst was satiated a bit this week. Seeing Blue, hugging him as tight as I could, I was reminded that when we seek connectedness with others as part of our law practice, we witness not only to the humanity of those we serve but also to a reinvigorated and fuller understanding of justice.

Douglas Ammar

Executive Director

Georgia Justice Project (GJP)

438 Edgewood Ave., NE

Atlanta, GA 30312

GJP is an unlikely mix of lawyers, social workers, and a landscaping company. We represent people accused of crime and win or lose, we stand with our clients while they rebuild their lives.

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