Mehwish Shaukat

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 strives to protect and advance the rights of incarcerated people with disabilities in Illinois who are denied access to transitional housing programs based on their disabilities.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) operates an ableist and classist parole system that keeps disabled people in prison past their release dates. Everyone sentenced to prison in the state is given a “mandatory supervised release” (MSR) date, at which point they are supposed to be placed in transitional housing to assist in their reentry. However, the IDOC largely contracts with housing programs that categorically deny entry to people with disabilities. Many programs refuse entry to people taking psychiatric medications, and the vast majority are not at all accessible to people who use mobility devices. Without such programs, disabled incarcerated people are left with an impossible choice: stop taking their medications or using mobility devices to increase their chances of getting into a housing program, or prioritize their health but risk spending extra time in prison because there is nowhere for them to go.

Fellowship Plans

Maya’s project will develop a class action lawsuit to ensure the Illinois Department of Corrections abides by the Americans with Disabilities Act when contracting with transitional housing providers. She will coordinate with local disability rights and reentry organizations, as well as system-impacted individuals, to establish an advisory committee that will guide all community organizing, litigation, and policy goals. Additionally, Maya will work closely with service providers to ensure disabled people returning home from prison receive support with housing, employment, and Social Security benefits.

As a Disabled person, I find power—and resilience—in advocating alongside members of my community to ensure disabled people never fall through the cracks. No one should have to hide their disability in order to get out of prison and into housing.

Maya Goldman /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Maya (she/her/hers) investigates and assists with affirmative litigation to vindicate the rights of people experiencing human rights abuses in Georgia prisons and jails, and work 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 Plans

Maya will work with attorneys and investigators to investigate conditions of confinement at facilities in Georgia through interviews with incarcerated people and record requests. Maya will work with the legal and policy teams to identify strategies to curb the human rights abuses people are experiencing and increase decarceration efforts, including supporting movement led work. Maya will also work with a team of data experts to identify 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) works on eradicating 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 is the first to target juvenile solitary specifically. Hosted by the Southern Center for Human Rights, Eliza is investigating this practice and will bring strategic litigation to challenge it.

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

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Eliza has:

  • 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

Next Steps

In the next year, Eliza plans to:

  • Continue working with community partners to identify affected clients and survivors of juvenile solitary
  • Construct and finalize a comprehensive report on the use of solitary confinement in Georgia
  • Utilize the report in targeted legislative advocacy and media campaigns to spread awareness and work 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) is working 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 motivates her commitment to building a legal landscape where they can successfully seek justice for those horrors.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Roz has:

  • 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

Next Steps

In the next few months, Roz plans to:

  • File opening briefs in at least three additional federal appeals to continue to expand favorably the law regarding the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement
  • Continue litigating existing appellate cases by filing reply briefs and prepare for oral argument in at least one case which is scheduled to be argued in September
  • Interview approximately nine MacArthur Justice Center clients who will be featured on the PLRA website and ensure that the telling of their stories honors and reflects 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) works 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 to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Sarah has:

  • 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

Next Steps

In the next year, Sarah plans to:

  • Monitor and share findings on specific North Carolina prison units
  • Utilize the data tool developed by Torqata to compile and distribute data to interested allies as well as to establish an outreach system for individuals in solitary confinement with upcoming release dates
  • Develop and analyze 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

The Project

Sarah advocated on behalf of incarcerated women in Massachusetts and served their unique legal needs through trauma-informed representation, rights education, and increasing public awareness through a report and media campaign.

Because incarceration has traditionally been framed as a men’s issue, the unique challenges women face while in custody were erased and their needs remained unmet. Acknowledging how incarceration affected women, specifically, was critical to advocating for those needs. An overwhelming majority of incarcerated women have experienced sexual violence, which is then compounded by their experiences in custody. Women are also more likely to be primary caregivers and have distinct medical needs.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Sarah:

  • Published a 50-page report detailing the experiences of both cis and trans incarcerated women throughout Massachusetts and made recommendations to address their unique needs.
  • Executed a media campaign in partnership with grassroots community organizers to publicize the report and recommendations.
  • Provided advocacy, brief advice, and referrals on over 50 matters for incarcerated women, both cis and trans.
  • Partnered with grassroots community organizers to advocate, through written and oral testimony, for the passage of a prison and jail construction moratorium bill in the state legislature.

Next Steps

Sarah will continue to lead the Women’s Incarceration Conditions and Reentry Project at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. She will use the report she wrote during her Equal Justice Works Fellowship to advocate for and leverage policy changes to benefit incarcerated women in Massachusetts.

Media

New Report Highlights Sexual Misconduct by Staff in Massachusetts Prisons

Report Details Women’s Accounts of Sexual Misconduct by Staff in Massachusetts Prisons and Jails

Women in Massachusetts Prisons Targets of Sexual, Mental Abuse: Study

A Different Way Forward: Stories from Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts and Recommendations

Massachusetts Organizers Call for No New Women’s Prisons and an End to Their Construction

PLS Considers a Different Way Forward for Women’s Prisons

Fostering a More Just Society

Bor-Zale, Nawab and Warren Awarded Equal Justice Works Fellowships

My life experiences taught me the value of empathy, and it is empathy that is at the heart of trauma-informed representation.

Sarah Nawab /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Expanded access to necessary medical care for incarcerated people with opioid use disorder through innovative litigation, advocacy, and training.

At least a quarter of America’s prison population suffers from opioid use disorder and twenty-four percent of people who are addicted to heroin pass through America’s jails and prisons each year. Yet most jails and prisons have an outright ban on medication for addiction treatment (MAT), the medically approved way to treat people with opioid use disorder through a combination of counseling and the FDA approved medications methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. The consequences of such inadequate medical care are deadly—one study found that in the first two weeks after release from prison, an incarcerated person’s risk of dying from a heroin overdose is forty times as high as the general population. But providing MAT saves lives—making it seven times less likely that a recently incarcerated individual will die of an overdose.

Joseph is from rural Ohio, which has been severely impacted by the opioid epidemic. Joseph spent the summer after his first year of law school in Cincinnati, Ohio working with incarcerated people, where he saw firsthand the toll that the opioid epidemic has taken on vulnerable communities. Joseph envisions a world where people suffering from any addiction are able to get the treatment they need and live whole lives, free from stigma.

Fellowship Highlights

Throughout his Fellowship, Joseph filed cases against jails and prisons in Illinois, New Mexico, and New York for failure to provide MAT for incarcerated people with opioid use disorder. The litigation in Illinois resulted in his client being the first non-pregnant person in the DuPage County Jail to receive methadone in five years and also sparked an expansion of the Jail’s methadone policy. He also published a report giving an overview of MAT-in-corrections policies throughout the country and providing a roadmap for policy change. Joseph worked on legislative and policy advocacy efforts alongside ACLU affiliates across the country to change prison and jail policies on MAT, as well as working on COVID-19 related litigation in jails and immigration detention facilities.

Next Steps

After his Fellowship, Joseph will clerk for Judge Roy McLeese of the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Media

Granting Emergency Request, Federal Court Blocks Jail from Denying Life-Sustaining Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder

Opinion: California prisons must provide inmates addiction treatment

Pandemic Lawyering: A Year in Review

‘We shouldn’t even have to have this conversation’: Woman recovering from opioid addiction sues to get methadone treatment in DuPage County Jail

As Overdoses Spike During Coronavirus, Treating Addiction in Prisons and Jails is a Matter of Life and Death

Supporting Inmates After They are Released

Chest to Chest: Inmates Are “Sitting Ducks” Waiting for COVID-19

How America’s prisons and jails perpetuate the opioid epidemic

Overdoses are on the rise. Is it time to provide medication assisted treatment in NC prisons?

Editorial: Helping jail inmates kick an opioid addiction helps us all

Exclusive: ACLU Sues NY County Over Methadone Access in Prison

How to Save Lives in Jail During the Opioid Crisis

Inmate sues to ensure methadone in prison