By Ben Wallace | LSU Student
ANGOLA, La. - Rickie Westfall and David Berry are convinced they will never again be free men. Nevertheless, they are devoting their time at the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) at Angola, also known as "The Farm," assisting others to get out.
Westfall and Berry, so far having served a combined 48 years at Angola, are part of the 71 percent of the prison's population currently serving life sentences. What separates the two from the remaining inmates is their job: offender counsel substitutes.
In other words, they are official jail house lawyers.
A staple of the LSP Legal Aid Program, the Offender Counsel Substitute Program (OCSP) provides inmates with legal assistance in criminal and civil litigation, as well as disciplinary board hearings inside the prison.
Offender counsel subs take turns representing clients in disciplinary hearings who have violated any one of the 30 rules governing the prison population. Infractions range from possessing contraband to sexual assault to battery.
The counsel sub program exists in some form at each of Louisiana's correctional facilities, although Angola's is the largest, by far, in terms of staff and resources.
Currently, Angola houses 61 offender counsel subs who represent approximately 5,000 inmates. Counsel substitutes have access to the law library located at Angola's Main Prison Complex, in addition to smaller law libraries at three residential facilities and Death row.
To become an offender counsel substitute, inmates must apply for an opening, although recommendations from inmate leaders are considered, said Debbie Rutledge, deputy general counsel for the Department of Corrections.
After passing an initial record screening, the prison administration conducts an interview to judge the candidate's capabilities of dealing with the inmate population and security. If all goes well, the recommendation is sent to the warden, who will then conduct another evaluation.
Once admitted, the offender is serves a six-month probationary period. At the Main Prison, the offender is assigned to one of seven units: library, inmate applications, criminal litigation team, civil litigation team, hospital, Main Prison cell block units, or treatment unit.
The treatment unit team deals with mentally challenged; the cellblock team conducts rounds three times a week to restricted cells, such as Camp J, a disciplinary unit referred to as the prison within prison. Death row counselors make five weekly rounds.
The state provides an annual weekend training session where attorneys and judges provide advice to inmates. The subtle flip side is that those same legal professionals want just as badly to find out what goes on inside the prison, said several attorneys and Westfall.
Susan Griffin, attorney for the Louisiana Department of State, said inmates have a basic distrust of people on "the outside," sometimes allowing for heightened trust levels between inmates and counsel substitutes. "They really take this job as a badge of honor. It's a real psyche builder."
The program requires inmates to possess at least a high school degree or G.E.D., in addition to 24 hours of specialized training, before beginning work. Angola used to offer a paralegal degree program, but it was ended because of funding problems.
Rutledge lauded the offender counsel saying some were smart enough to be attorneys. "Everyone loves the inmate counsel," she said, noting that they speed up legal processes and dramatically reduce frivolous lawsuits filed by inmates.
Partly responsible for the increased efficiency is the application process to request legal aid, which helps weed out those inmates whom offender counsel cannot help.
"The counsel cannot get involved with rape charges, especially involving a minor," said Ray Jones, the main prison's law librarian. "It's better to have a murder charge than a sex charge," he noted, since certain laws prohibit offender counsel from viewing necessary records and documents needed for an appeal.
The program has its roots in a December 1972 court ordered mandate by Federal District Judge E. Gordon West which forced the prison to hold mediation sessions on housing, health care and inadequate disciplinary procedures.
A group of staff negotiators from the U.S. Department of Justice joined six inmates who represented the prison's population and staff for the sessions, and the team continued to develop disciplinary processes afterword.
In 1974, Wolff v. McDonnell required prisons to provide meaningful access to courts for inmates in the form of trained people or libraries. Shortly after, Judge West issued another round of sweeping legal changes, including a reduced prison population, additional staffing and streamlined communication.
Dora Rabalais saw it all. She began work at Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1970 and
served as the Legal Program Department director from 1979 until her retirement in 2005.
Deeply involved in the offender counsel program, Rabalais watched it blossom from six inmates with a limited library of donated books and one or two typewriters in 1975 to a staff of 60, a complete law library with WestLaw access, and a computer for each staffer.
Those same ancient computers have no Internet access, mostly for the security risks of providing inmates with too much outside contact. For inmates not serving as offender counsel, one typewriter is available for document drafting in the main law library.
Rabalais said other states such as Florida, Mississippi and Texas soon adopted similar programs to avoid hiring attorneys. "Hearings were so much easier if inmate counsel spoke on behalf of the inmate."
Rickie Westfall said he's always giving "100 percent" to keep that statement true. As civil litigation team coordinator, Westfall mostly handles post-conviction appeals. "Guilt or innocence is irrelevant to me. I'm looking for technicalities or a violation of due process."
Westfall argues that post-conviction appeals cases can only be won by proving violations of the U.S. Constitution, making time the appellant's worst enemy. Once a district court judge upholds a final conviction, the defendant has two years to file post-conviction appeal in state court. That deadline shrinks to one year for federal courts.
"Document speed is a major problem for us," said Westfall, which includes the issue of keeping the law library regularly updated with court rulings. The lag between court rulings and new resources can often compromise extensive research already done on a case.
During the initial direct appeal following convictions, offenders have rights to a court-appointed lawyer, who prepares the appeal with free trial transcripts. However, by law, offender counsel substitutes are not entitled to free arrest-documents or trial transcripts during post-conviction relief hearings. They must pay out of pocket for any police or court records.
"Sometimes a guy's transcript costs $700 to $1,000," said Calvin Duncan, a former offender counsel substitute who was released from Angola in 2011 after serving 28 ½ years for a crime he did not commit. Inmate wages begin at two cents per hour and rise as high as 20 cents per hour for 40 hours per week, which is an offender counsel substitute's salary and the maximum allowed by law.
Since incentive wages are withheld for the first three years, it can take decades to save up enough money for copies of documents. Meanwhile, court deadlines have passed.
"They are all public records. But at some point an [inmate] is no longer considered a person. He requires someone on the outside to get his records," said Duncan.
Duncan arrived at Angola in 1986, four years after his arrest on first-degree murder charges leading to a life sentence without parole, probation or suspension of sentence. After decades of exhausting his legal options for his case, Duncan received help from the Innocence Project New Orleans, which played a significant role in his release.
David Berry has more than 10 years of offender counsel experience and co-produces an hour-long show for closed circuit prison TV station called "Legal Forum." The show airs Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. and presents updated Supreme Court rulings while weaving in practical legal advice.
"My heart is what keeps me going," said Berry. "Everybody wants some help in some way or another."
Westfall said in a year's work they never get more than five releases, and usually the number hovers around one or two.
Recently, Westfall played a significant role in the reversal of the conviction of twin brothers, Tyrone and Tony Banks, who were each serving 433 years for armed robbery. Westfall argued the twins were denied their rights to counsel, a fair trial, and the effective assistance of counsel. The court agreed.
However, the brothers will likely receive additional sentences based on other robberies, said Westfall, who still considers it a major success.
Upon entering Angola's main gates, a small wooden sign reads: "You are entering the land of new beginnings."
Westfall said he used to be harshly judgmental until one time he punched a man he believed to be a child molester. When it turned out the man was cleared by DNA evidence, it changed Westfall's view on life.