Luci Harrell is, she and others believe, the first person to attend law school in Georgia while incarcerated. But it wasn’t an easy thing to do.
Over the last two years, she has earned a masters degree in mass communications from South Dakota State University and is currently enrolled in an advanced certificate program in Community Advocacy at SUNY Empire State College.
She joins a growing number of people with first-hand criminal legal system experience who have decided to enter the legal field. And she received advice from Antonio Reza, currently a student at Santa Clara University Law School, on how to choose a law school. He told her to select one that feels right. And that school for her is Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.
Making the decision to go to law school
Why did Harrell decide to go to law school? “I’ve had the rare chance of having my human rights, constitutional rights and civil rights violated – which is rarer for white people but, sadly, becoming more commonplace on the whole,” she says. “Being contained by a criminal system that snuffs all efforts toward legally resolving rights infringements has inspired me to go to law school.”
Working on her own case and helping others with theirs has also inspired her.
“Working on my own case and having some success with others’ has been inspiring as well. Actively studying and constructing arguments, filing motions and rebuttal briefs while incarcerated has reaffirmed my own capacities, despite the courts’ tendency to dismiss filings made by people in custody representing ourselves,” Harrell says.
In addition, she feels that it’s crucial to have more people who have been imprisoned attend law school.
“Though so many passionate lawyers work diligently to undo the corruption that has come to define daily operations within the criminal system, few really understand what that looks like firsthand,” she says. “So, it’s a necessitated thing that those of us who have been injustice impacted go to law school. Attorneys who know nothing about the PIC (prison industrial complex) – many of the same ones who promote racism and disenfranchisement at various junctures – are always driving the legal field to operate as one of bigotry, exclusion, and elitism. We have to resist that.”
Challenges she faced
The first challenge Harrell faced was the LSAT (Law School Admission Test). The people in charge at the halfway house where she’s currently incarcerated made a special exception for her to go and take the LSAT in person. But studying for it was a big challenge. She used free services like Khan Academy and took weekly practice tests over the months leading up to the day of the test.
When she completes law school and is released, Harrell says, “I’d love to work in both the appellate, criminal law side, and to work in civil rights and on policy issues, too.” She‘s prepared for this by coupling her communications background with studies in human services and public policy.
Advice for others
Harrell shares some advice for others who are – or who have been – incarcerated and might be thinking about attending law school.
“It’s extremely difficult but absolutely imperative that more of us study law. The more of us who choose to carve out a way, the easier we can make that process for those who come next,” she says. “Despite what the system tells us, we are tied to our communities and tied to a bigger picture.”
It’s important to be doggedly determined to achieve your goal.
“Know that you are just going to have to make a way for yourself,” Harrell adds. “You have to be persistent and creative, and refuse to accept limitations. Take advantage of what’s going on right now because of COVID. The LSAT Flex allows you to take your test remotely, and many law schools are providing distance learning because of the temporary ABA variant.” (The American Bar Association usually requires its accredited law schools to conduct classes in person. But because of the COVID pandemic, it is allowing schools to conduct all courses virtually for the Fall 2020 term and maybe into spring as well.)
“Get your foot in the door while you can!” she advises.