Serving the Underserved
Julia Yoo represents the female prisoners and others society has written off
Published in 2022 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine on March 31, 2022
In 1998, a half century after the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed the milestone Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international organization Human Rights Watch wrote that basic rights for women were “still being challenged at every turn.” That was also the year a recent law school grad named Julia Yoo began helping women whose rights few cared about: prisoners at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.
On Yoo’s first day at the prison, a large group of inmates sat all day in a waiting area, where they were not allowed to eat, waiting for the chance to talk with her. As 5 p.m. neared, an older inmate was ushered in. She had a lemon-sized growth in her breast but prison officials were denying her medical treatment. She spoke quickly, knowing she didn’t have much time with Yoo. Then she paused.
“I want to give up my time,” she told Yoo. “There is a young woman who was molested by a guard waiting to see you, and she needs you more than I do.”
Yoo pauses in telling the story and tears well up in her eyes. Finally, she says, “Everything I know about being a good human being I learned from my parents and from the women at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.”
A partner at the civil rights law firm Iredale and Yoo in San Diego, Yoo has won cases for a female prisoner who was left to miscarry her baby in her cell and a woman raped by a corrections officer. She authored the briefs in Bryan v. MacPherson, a 2009 case that led to a landmark 9th Circuit Court decision restricting police use of the Taser. She is also president of the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP), the country’s largest civil rights attorneys’ organization. She is the first woman and person of color to hold the position.
In the words of San Diego attorney Charles Duke, she is “a pitbull—the toughest attorney I have worked with in 34 years.” Gene Iredale, her partner, seconds the sentiment. “You’ve heard of the iron fist and the velvet glove? Well, Julia has the most elegant velour for the glove, but the fist is pure titanium.”
In casual conversation, Yoo does not quite reflect the pitbull image. Soft-spoken, she pivots when asked questions about herself, bragging instead about her brother who earned a Ph.D. from MIT, and her sister who picked up the piano by ear as a toddler.
She exchanges Christmas cards and messages with half of the clients she has represented over the past two decades. “She sends me random gifts, like journals,” says Josie Mullally, whom Yoo represented in a case about 20 years ago involving denied medical treatment. “I was a class-four felon but she still calls me her baby. She just embraces all aspects of who you are.”
Yoo was born in Korea to a family whose prominence she didn’t realize until fourth grade. Her teacher was discussing the famous families of the Chosŏn dynasty, the last dynastic kingdom in Korea, when she pointed at Yoo and startled her by saying, “We have a person from one of those prominent families right here.” (Asked how prominent, Yoo laughs. “Like great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather. He invented something, so he was given land and a title.”)
Other aspects of her family lineage kept sneaking up on her. Her mother said they came from a family of schoolteachers, but it was only two years ago that Yoo learned her uncle had once been the country’s secretary of education. When Yoo asked why this was never mentioned, her mother shrugged: “It never came up in conversation.”
Despite the family’s comfortable position, they moved to Denver when Yoo was 11. “My parents were both strong proponents of equity and fairness,” she says. “They saw the direction the country was taking as being fundamentally unfair, which is sort of a spectacular thing. When I look back, my parents come from the ruling class, and for them to stand up against the fundamental inequity of the country is amazing.”
In Korea, her father had been a cultural attaché who welcomed entertainers, dignitaries, and politicians from other countries. In the U.S., they both became janitors. Her mother couldn’t speak English, and Yoo learned the language by watching episodes of Charlie’s Angels.
“My father was a diplomat so he was familiar with various cultures in different countries,” she says. “They thought of America as being a beautiful country where everyone’s children got a fair shake no matter what family they were born into, what their last name was, and what they looked like. Their beautiful faith and dream in that country wasn’t always realistic, but they never gave up on it.” Within a handful of years, they had started their own janitorial company.
After college, Yoo wanted to discover her roots, so she returned to Seoul and landed a job working for Samsung’s aerospace division—coordinating teachers who taught languages to employees. The job would normally have gone to someone with a Ph.D.; Yoo assumed she got it because of her family name.
“It felt a little meaningless, like I was a very glamorous bird in a cage,” she says. “I wanted to earn what I got in life. So I came back to the United States.”
For a time, she thought about going into the fashion industry (Iredale calls her “Mother Teresa with an affinity for Gucci”), but she opted instead for the University of Colorado Law School. “I thought this degree would be useful for some activist role,” she says. “I wanted to use my education to serve the most underserved communities.” During law school, she volunteered for several labor unions. Then she discovered an underserved community that spoke to her more.
“I had never been inside a jail or prison before, but I got to know my clients well, and saw the kind of selfless generosity I’d only seen from my parents,” she says. “I don’t want to romanticize it, because there are terrible people everywhere, and backstabbing people everywhere. But certain women rose to leadership positions and set the tone. It’s really remarkable to see in a natural setting where there’s no interference from the outside. I saw it repeatedly. I still do.”
In 1998, Yoo founded the Law Center for Women Prisoners, a nonprofit organization designed to assist and advocate for incarcerated women. “Immediately after I started that project, I realized the name was all wrong,” she says. “Because it dawned on me that they’re not ‘women prisoners.’ That’s not what defines them. It happens to be a temporary location of where they are, but they’re women, they’re mothers, they’re sisters, they’re leaders, they’re survivors. They’re not prisoners.”
She drilled this message into the inmates she represented. Her client Mullally was 16 when she was charged as an adult for a non-violent crime. Pregnant in prison, she didn’t get the medical care she needed. After release, Yoo approached her about taking part in a suit against the prison for being denied medical treatment.
“I was still trying to figure out who I was at that point,” Mullally says. “Julia took me shopping at the fanciest malls, and I was completely uncomfortable because she was trying to get me a tailored suit. She treated me better than any person at that point had ever treated me in my life. I don’t know if I would be the person I am today if I hadn’t met Julia.”
Yoo also introduced her to her mother and father. “They only spoke a word or two of English, but they made me feel very comfortable,” Mullally says. “They are the sweetest, kindest people, and just fed me non-stop the entire day. There was a language barrier, but not a barrier as far as what you feel. If I had read someone’s background like mine, I’d be hesitant to take them into my family’s home, and have my mom and dad cook for them. But Julia did. I hope she’s not still doing that and she’s screening people better.”
Pamela Clifton, another former client who served 4.5 years in a Colorado prison for a minor drug conviction, adds, “Julia is incredibly empathetic. I always felt heard when I talked to her. She was always honest with me.”
Clifton remembers the personal connection more than the legal advice. After Clifton was paroled, Yoo met with her at a Starbucks. “It was the first time I’d been out anywhere since leaving prison,” she says. “We were sitting on the steps and talking, just like normal human beings. She brought this wonderful gift bag with some beautiful sweaters. It felt like two girlfriends getting together for a birthday coffee. I was just transfixed by the level of kindness. It felt like I was being welcomed back and told, ‘We missed you.’”
As a lawyer, Yoo is most proud of a case involving a private prison where a drug and alcohol counselor was sexually harassing and assaulting female inmates. After the settlement, the prison was unable to get insurance and was shut down. She bristles generally about private prisons—how they create dangerous conditions and cut corners to make a buck.
“Before these women were victimized in prison, they lived a life of victimization,” she says. “The common theme is abuse from childhood that leads to a lot of early pregnancies. They suffered pain from their inability to parent their children, and from broken relationships and betrayals. A lot of time you saw women in prison because they took the rap for their significant others.
“I didn’t see the women in prison as different than me. They were given different opportunities than I was, and I was just lucky. That’s it. There was no other difference.”
In the early 2000s, Yoo worked with Iredale on a case in Colorado. Intrigued by her nonprofit inmate work and entrepreneurial approach to the law, he asked her to join his civil rights firm in San Diego. The clients would be right up her alley—people whose constitutional rights have been violated—and she’d have access to more resources.
She adds another reason she took the job. “I didn’t have trial skills,” Yoo says. “I really needed a partner who could show me the way.”
Iredale dismisses this. “As a person, she’s extraordinary. As a lawyer, she’s beyond extraordinary,” he says. “She has the ability to work indefatigably, with a thorough knowledge of the law. She’s here every weekend. She’s a workhorse. As she’s gotten older, she’s become a little more relaxed. Sometimes she doesn’t even work 80 hours a week.”
Yoo recently settled a case with a schizophrenic client who died from polydipsia—a condition that creates an unquenchable thirst that can cause people to keep drinking water until they die. The San Diego jail system has implemented policy changes as a result of the case.
“Our firm represents really unpopular people—a lot of schizophrenic people, people with a criminal history, people that are not likeable from the outside,” Yoo says. “But we want to represent those people. They need to be heard.”
Yoo talks about one such client, Paul Silva. “He was high-functioning. He was such a loved and treasured member of this family. He was the favorite uncle of all of the children in the family. He saw his mother every morning and had breakfast with her.”
And he was suffering from schizophrenia. Yoo relates how officers thought he was high on amphetamines so they took him to Men’s Central Jail in downtown San Diego instead of a mental health facility. He was kept in a holding cell for 36 hours with around-the-clock lights and no access to fresh water, clean clothes, a bed or his medications. He died when officers tried to forcibly remove him from his cell. Last year, his family received $3.5 million, then the largest settlement ever for an in-custody fatality in the San Diego County jail system.
Iredale says they were presented with a $2 million settlement offer. “That’s a hard thing to turn down,” Iredale says. “Julia didn’t blink an eye. She demanded and got three and a half million. She is sweet, respectful and self-effacing, but I’m always afraid she’s going to storm off in settlement conferences. She knows what’s right, and what’s wrong, and is willing to fight for it.”