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Angela Larsen

The Project

Angela (she/her) will litigate on behalf of incarcerated individuals in Ohio’s state prisons to secure their constitutional and human rights and seek reforms.

There are over 40,000 people in Ohio’s state prisons, and Black Ohioans are incarcerated at a rate 5.5 times higher than white Ohioans (Prison Policy Institute). Many are subject to excessive force, sexual abuse, and deliberate indifference to their serious medical needs. Incarcerated people are overwhelmingly indigent and lack access to counsel. Angela will represent incarcerated people in civil rights actions to address constitutional violations, and develop significant impact litigation to reform the Ohio prison system as a whole.

Angela is an alumna of the University of Cincinnati and a proud Midwesterner. Prior to law school, she learned from civil rights attorneys in Cincinnati like OJPC founder Al Gerhardstein, that litigation is one of the most effective ways to secure the rights of those who are politically powerless and as a result, chose to pursue a legal career to advocate for those affected by mass incarceration.

Fellowship Plans

Angela will file civil rights lawsuits on behalf of individual incarcerated individuals and seek systemic reforms by developing impact and/or class-action litigation. Additionally, with the Ohio Justice and Policy’s Beyond Guilt project, she will advocate for the release of over-sentenced individuals by filing motions for resentencing and helping them navigate the parole and clemency process.

My Equal Justice Works Fellowship has afforded me the opportunity to serve people living inside Ohio’s prisons. I am honored to become a part of an organization that has spent decades fighting on behalf of people impacted by the criminal legal system and believes that no one should be written off.

Angela Larsen /
2024 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Katie’s (she/her/hers) project will work with the MacArthur Justice Center’s Supreme Court and Appellate Program to litigate federal and state appeals arising at the intersection of solitary confinement and disability, serious mental illness, or youth, as a tactic to accelerate the abolition of solitary confinement for the nation’s most vulnerable incarcerated people.

Each year, over 120,000 incarcerated men, women, and children endure solitary confinement in prisons and jails in the United States. People who are held in solitary experience 23 hours per day in cages measuring under 8×10 feet without any meaningful human contact and very few, if any, opportunities to find fulfillment elsewhere; religion, exercise, rehabilitation programs, and entertainment are strictly limited, or prohibited entirely. Often, the most vulnerable incarcerated individuals—those with mental illness or a disability and juveniles—are placed in solitary. Isolation is so psychologically damaging that solitary confinement accounts for about 50% of prison suicides even though 6.3% of the prison population is locked in solitary confinement on a given day.

Fellowship Plans

Katie will bring claims in federal and state appellate courts challenging the use of solitary confinement on vulnerable groups, under the Eighth Amendment and its state constitutional analogues. Over the past few years, several federal circuit courts have begun to recognize that the toxic combination of mental illness and solitary confinement may raise constitutional concerns. Katie will build upon these precedents to obtain favorable results in these and other circuits for a broader class of vulnerable people. Katie will also produce educational materials so that incarcerated individuals and their loved ones can be prepared to effectively bring these claims pro se.

My Equal Justice Works Fellowship has afforded me the opportunity to serve vulnerable incarcerated people throughout the country. After spending time volunteering in prisons, I saw the horrific conditions firsthand, which catalyzed my desire to work on these issues.

Katie Pleiss /
2024 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

As a Fellow at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Ayesha (she/her/hers) will advocate for a decrease in use of solitary confinement for incarcerated individuals through direct representation, community organizing, and policy reform.

Upwards of 120,000 prisoners in the United States are being held in solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the country, often without a legitimate reason for confinement. A significant portion of this population experiences mental health issues, and the oppressive and violent conditions of solitary confinement exacerbate the symptoms of these illnesses. The administrative obstacles that prisoners face, particularly those in solitary, create significant difficulties for them to seek relief for their mistreatment. Prisoners in solitary need greater access to counsel and the courts, education regarding their rights, and a shift in the systems that dictate their incarceration to ensure their safety, health, and well-being.

Fellowship Plans

Over the course of her Fellowship, Ayesha will work directly with prisoners in solitary confinement to navigate administrative processes and legal avenues to challenge their placement in solitary. Ayesha will work with these individuals to learn more about the mechanisms that force prisoners into solitary confinement and strategize sustainable policy solutions to harmful practices and procedures. Additionally, she will work with community organizations and other stakeholders to create a network of resources and support for prisoners in solitary confinement seeking legal assistance.

Media

New EJW Fellows Named

The carceral system destroys lives and communities in the name of ‘justice.’ As a first-generation Muslim American and a woman of color, I feel compelled to fight against such violence and work towards an end to these cruel systems.

Ayesha Ahsan /
2024 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Mehwish will fight to protect the religious liberties of Muslims in prison through national appellate impact litigation and strategic coalition building. 

The United States incarcerates thousands of people of faith and routinely violates their fundamental right to worship. Most people who face such violations have no attorneys. Previous estimates have found that around 95% of people in prison represent themselves. When they file pro se, and often lose, they have no appellate representation. 

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in prison. Too often, prisons inflict violence and torture on Muslims who seek to peacefully practice their faith. With virtually no access to quality appellate representation to fight losses in the district court, the violations have multiplied in duration and degree. Muslims have been subjected to torture by prolonged stints in solitary confinement, violent forcible shavings, traumatic forcible removal of hijab, and more. There are almost no appellate experts who specialize in prisoners’ rights and also fully understand Muslim religious practices. 

Fellowship Plans

Mehwish will craft a national litigation strategy and lead the charge to file appeals for religious liberty violations in federal appellate courts across the nation. She will directly represent clients appealing Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and First Amendment violations. In addition to her impact litigation, Mehwish will leverage her deep personal ties to impacted persons and communities to center and amplify her clients’ often ignored voices in the community and in the courtroom. Her project is a groundbreaking effort to assemble a national coalition of appellate experts, impacted persons, and legal scholars to end torture and violence against Muslims in prison. Mehwish’s advocacy and appellate victories will strengthen the religious liberties of all people in prison. 

My purpose is to force the criminal justice system to reckon with the broken promises of our constitution that all people—no matter how vilified—are equal before the law.

Mehwish Shaukat /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

At the Southern Center for Human Rights, Megan will provide zealous parole advocacy for incarcerated people seeking their freedom before the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles (the “Board”) has a history of denying parole applications. In 2018, 54% of incarcerated people were granted parole, and that number dropped to 31% in 2019, 15% in 2020, and just 3% in 2021. The low parole grant rate exacerbates overcrowding in the Alabama Department of Corrections, which results in dangerous and even fatal conditions within the state’s prisons.

Every person seeking parole needs and deserves zealous advocacy to ensure their testimonies are heard before the Board. The steep decline in the parole grant rate in Alabama, and Alabama’s dangerously overcrowded prisons, underscore the urgent need for parole advocacy.

Fellowship Plans

Megan’s project will train legal and non-legal volunteers to provide parole-eligible individuals with passionate advocacy before the Board. Legal and non-legal advocacy for clients will increase their likelihood of success in their parole hearings. During her Fellowship, Megan will develop relationships with firms and non-legal volunteers in Alabama and Georgia to create pro bono opportunities for volunteers interested in parole advocacy, create parole advocacy presentations to train volunteers preparing for parole advocacy, and collect data concerning parole grant rates during the Fellowship.

Many of Megan’s family members have been deeply impacted by the criminal legal system, whether from incarceration, juvenile detention, probation, or parole. Megan’s connection to the criminal legal system motivates her commitment to providing zealous parole advocacy for individuals seeking their freedom in Alabama.

The Alabama Department of Corrections disproportionately ensnares low-income people of color. I am honored to provide advocates in Alabama and Georgia with the tools to ensure incarcerated people, who are often silenced, have a meaningful opportunity to seek their freedom.

Megan Toomer /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Through the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Grace (they/them) supports eligible incarcerated voters to build power and voting access structures in jurisdictions without jail-based absentee ballot access through advocacy, coalition building, and impact litigation.

Over 480,000 incarcerated people on any given day are detained pre-trial, most of whom are eligible voters, as they are not serving felony convictions during their incarceration. Although a handful of jails allow people to vote in person inside their facilities, most voters across the nation can only vote through absentee ballots. Yet since 2021, at least nineteen states have passed restrictive absentee ballot legislation. These restrictions effectively make it even harder for an incarcerated person to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Fellowship Plans

During their Fellowship, Grace will advocate for incarcerated voters in states where restrictive absentee voting laws create barriers to jail-based voting access. Grace will use community lawyering methods to collaborate with local organizations and advocates, county officials, and incarcerated voters and build local power through sustainable coalition-building. Grace will lead educational campaigns for county officials and incarcerated voters to create local programs inside jails, provide voters with direct services, and devise litigation strategies when advocacy efforts are insufficient.

Grace’s experiences watching their older sister being unable to exercise her right to vote while in jail—despite being an eligible voter—fuels their work for incarcerated populations. Their sister’s eventual disenfranchisement propelled them before and throughout law school to support voters in a local jail in Austin, Texas vote.

The right to vote secures all other rights in our democratic process. A person’s incarceration should not make that right any less real, and I am dedicated to making the right a reality for all incarcerated voters.

Grace Tomas /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Maya (she/her/hers) investigated and assisted with affirmative litigation to vindicate the rights of people experiencing human rights abuses in Georgia prisons and jails. She also worked on community-based non-litigation approaches to these harms.

Georgia has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the United States. Conditions of confinement in many of Georgia’s jails and prisons have deteriorated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic such that incarcerated people are experiencing violations of their human rights. Black and Latine Georgians are overrepresented in Georgia’s prisons and jails, and therefore more likely to be impacted by the significant decline in conditions of confinement that incarcerated people are experiencing.

Maya’s time as an investigator working on advocacy and litigation around criminal courts in the South drives her commitment to open courts, which are an essential step toward empowering communities to enact change in local criminal legal systems. She is passionate about challenging injustices at the intersection of race and poverty in the criminal legal system.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Maya:

  • Worked with attorneys and investigators to investigate conditions of confinement at facilities in Georgia through interviews with incarcerated people and record requests
  • Identified strategies to curb the human rights abuses experienced by incarcerated people
  • Increased decarceration efforts and supported movement-led work
  • Assisted a team of data experts in identifying the racial disparities present in the carceral system in Georgia

Media

Using Waller to Uphold First and Sixth Amendment Rights Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic

Fabulous Fellows: Students Earn Premier Honors in Public Interest Practice

My experience as an investigator showed me the importance of working with clients and impacted communities to challenge inhumane conditions and other consequences of mass incarceration."

Maya Chaudhuri /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Eliza (she/her/hers) aimed to eradicate the use of solitary confinement for young people—particularly young people of color—incarcerated within the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Although federal prisons banned juvenile solitary in 2016, the practice continues in Georgia, almost exclusively affecting Black youth. While there have been legal efforts targeting the use of solitary in Georgia’s adult prisons and jails, Eliza’s project was the first to target juvenile solitary specifically. Hosted by the Southern Center for Human Rights, Eliza investigated this practice and brought strategic litigation to challenge it.

Eliza’s experience advocating for clients subjected to solitary confinement and her commitment to making Georgia better motivated her to fight against solitary confinement in its cruelest form—as applied to children, and disproportionately children of color.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Eliza:

  • Compiled and submitted several comprehensive requests for documents from the Georgia Department of Corrections through Georgia’s Open Records Act
  • Developed investigative skills by conducting at least 20 interviews with incarcerated people regarding their conditions of confinement
  • Honed advocacy skills by advocating for improved conditions for numerous people currently detained in jail
  • Connected with public defenders across the state to identify and get in touch with affected youth
  • Started work on a comprehensive report detailing the use of solitary confinement across the state of Georgia, including the use of solitary confinement for youth incarcerated within the Georgia Department of Corrections
  • Worked with community partners to identify affected clients and survivors of juvenile solitary
  • Constructed and finalized a comprehensive report on the use of solitary confinement in Georgia
  • Utilized the report in targeted legislative advocacy and media campaigns to spread awareness
  • Worked towards legislation to curtail the cruel practice of solitary confinement for youth incarcerated in the Georgia Department of Corrections

Media

Eight from Harvard Law named Equal Justice Works Fellows

Reducing Inequalities, Advancing Human Rights

Ensuring that kids in adult prisons are not subjected to solitary confinement can greatly minimize the long-term negative impact of incarceration.

Eliza McDuffie /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Roz (she/her/hers) worked to dismantle arbitrary procedural barriers that derail prisoners’ civil rights actions through federal appeals attacking such barriers, amicus coalitions, and education for prisoners.

The United States leads the world in incarcerations with 2.3 million people behind bars. The brutalities of mass incarceration are well documented, including the psychological torture of solitary confinement, rampant sexual and other violence, and countless other deprivations of civil liberties. The problem is, decades ago Congress enacted a poorly drafted statute, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which obstructs prisoners’ access to the courts. Perhaps the greatest of the PLRA’s barriers is the exhaustion provision: if a prisoner fails to comply precisely with its often purposefully complicated requirements, their right to sue is lost forever.

Roz’s experience working alongside prisoners in law school opened her eyes to the unspeakable horrors they face daily and motivated her commitment to building a legal landscape where they can successfully seek justice for those horrors.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Roz:

  • Participated in eight appeals on behalf of incarcerated clients in hopes of creating law that will help incarcerated people satisfy the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement and achieved success in one case in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals
  • Presented oral argument to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case where a prison confiscated legal mail that the client needed to join a class-action lawsuit on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the Boy Scouts of America
  • Partnered with the ACLU’s National Prison Project to develop an exhaustion-specific amicus, which has been adapted to, and filed in, five of her PLRA exhaustion cases so far
  • Spearheaded the development of a PLRA website to share the stories of MacArthur Justice Center clients who have been profoundly impacted by one of the PLRA’s burdensome provisions
  • Filed opening briefs in additional federal appeals to continue to expand favorably the law regarding the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement
  • Litigated existing appellate cases by filing reply briefs
  • Interviewed approximately nine MacArthur Justice Center clients who were featured on the PLRA website and ensure that the telling of their stories honors and reflected their voices and experiences

Media

Roz Dillon's Team Member Profile

I am driven by the fundamental truth that prisoners are people, and that all people, no matter what they have done, deserve to be treated humanely and with dignity.

Roz Dillon /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Sarah (she/her/hers) worked with Disability Rights North Carolina to evaluate confinement conditions in North Carolina prisons and recommend strategies to improve treatment and prison conditions for incarcerated people with mental illness.

The North Carolina prison system holds thousands of people in solitary confinement on any given day. Although solitary confinement is extremely damaging to mental health, North Carolina prisons continue to assign people with mental illness to solitary, some for several months or years on end. North Carolina prisons implemented Therapeutic Diversion Units (TDUs) to serve as alternatives to solitary confinement for people with mental illness and Rehabilitative Diversion Units (RDUs) to serve as alternatives to long-term solitary confinement. Utilizing the Protection and Advocacy Agency (P&A) powers of Disability Rights North Carolina, Sarah is studying conditions in the TDUs, RDUs, and solitary units to strengthen advocacy efforts  of Disability Rights North Carolina and its partners in abolishing the use of solitary confinement for people with mental illness.

Sarah was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder as a teenager and recovered because she had privileged access to high-quality healthcare. After studying the systematic criminalization of mental illness, she became determined to expand quality care access to marginalized populations, particularly for people in prison who lack agency over care.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Sarah:

  • Toured the North Carolina prison system inpatient mental health unit, general population and solitary confinement residential mental health units, and crisis mental health units
  • Monitored the entire solitary confinement control-status population in a North Carolina prison and debriefed with the acting Warden to highlight individual and systemic issues uncovered
  • Expanded communication with incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement, the RDUs and the TDUs
  • Collaborated with over 50 individuals and organizations, including directly impacted individuals, P&As from other states, legal and mental health advocacy organizations, and professional associations
  • Monitored and shared findings on specific North Carolina prison units
  • Utilized the data tool developed by Torqata to compile and distribute data to interested allies
  • Established an outreach system for individuals in solitary confinement with upcoming release dates
  • Developed and analyzed strategies for Disability Rights North Carolina to pursue in order to eliminate the use of solitary confinement for people with mental illness and other disabilities

Media

An Advocate for Mental Health

A person’s opportunity to recover from disease is a human right that should not be impeded by prison walls.

Sarah Hoffman /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow