The average prisoner has neither the power to compel transportation to court nor the money to hire an attorney. But one Chicago court may have found a fix.
CHICAGO—Testifying one recent Wednesday morning that her marriage was irretrievably broken, a young woman told the Cook County court she was waiving her option to collect spousal support or divide any shared assets with her husband; all she wanted was to be free of him.
When the woman’s legal representative asked if she’d tried to work out their differences, she paused. “Well, he had an alcohol problem and had been abusive,” she testified. “You can’t really work that out.”
“Just because someone is incarcerated doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to the courts,” Dickler told me back in her chambers, following the hearing. “We give parties the ability to get on with their lives. When they come out, they’ll have a clean slate and won’t have to address these matters.”
Known as the incarcerated litigants call, this recurring court session allows Dickler to quickly process prisoners’ family-court cases. (In the first session I visited, she disposed of 10 in about two hours.) The program began two years ago in her courtroom, which is part of the second-largest family court in the United States. A legal-aid group provides the inmates free representation, and all associated court fees are waived.
For years, Dickler and her staff had received letters from prisoners around the state who were desperate to settle domestic matters but would inevitably hit a wall while attempting to draft a petition themselves, pay filing fees, or serve a spouse with papers. Most of them were women, who make up the fastest-growing segment of the prison population and who have, in some cases, unique legal needs. Women, for example, often have complicated child-visitation or guardianship cases. They also get fewer visitors from family than men do, according to legal-aid experts, which can translate to them having fewer advocates helping them negotiate red tape from the outside.
What’s more: “In cases like divorce, if you’re not present on the last day and don’t have an attorney—and most people who are incarcerated don’t—you cannot complete the divorce,” said Alexis Mansfield, a supervising attorney with Cabrini Green Legal Aid, the nonprofit group representing litigants pro bono during Dickler’s bimonthly calls. “The court basically had people filing [domestic] cases and having them go nowhere.” (While CGLA staffers have represented male inmates on the calls, they’ve primarily focused on women and mothers.)