Our Prisoners, Ourselves

Deborah LaBelle is using the state Legislature and international law to reform U.S. prisons

Published in 2006 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2006

When Deborah LaBelle studied philosophy at Columbia University and environmental law at Wayne State University, she considered herself mainly a theorist; then two lawsuits set her on the road to activism. The first, involving the Freedom Riders, opened her eyes to the good the law could do; the second, involving women prisoners, gave her her life’s work.

The Freedom Riders case alleged that the FBI was complicit in the beatings of freedom riders during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. “That case was a revelation to me,” LaBelle, 50, says. It was 1983 and LaBelle worked as a junior lawyer on a team led by William Goodman, now with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and on behalf of Walter Bergman, who, at the age of 61 in 1961, traveled to the South on an integrated bus to protest segregation. He was almost beaten to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been infiltrated by the FBI. The case ended in a judgment for Bergman.

“You know the [Milan] Kundera quote that the fight against oppression is ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’? I saw how law could bring things out of the shadows,” she says.

Still, the next time she had an opportunity to use the law to bring things out of the shadows, she was initially reluctant. A friend working for Michigan Legal Services asked her to take on a case because she feared she wouldn’t be able to finish it; she had been diagnosed with cancer. “I didn’t want to do it, but she told me she would will it to me after her death if I didn’t,” LaBelle says.

The case, which became known as Glover v. Johnson, argued that women prisoners should have the same access as male prisoners to rehabilitation programs like college classes and vocational training — instead of simply home-ec classes. “Women were coming out of prison with absolutely no skills except for being able to set a very good table — if they could afford china,” LaBelle says with a healthy dose of sarcasm.

LaBelle took over the case in 1986 thinking it wouldn’t take long to resolve. It seemed straightforward. “We thought it was a win-win situation for the women and the prisons. The women would come out with skills and would be less likely to return to prison,” she says. The defendant, the Michigan Department of Corrections, thought otherwise. It took nearly 20 years for the department to fully comply with the court’s numerous orders despite being held in contempt and paying fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But in 2002 when the case ended, women prisoners were finally able to take college courses and obtain vocational training. The victory was bittersweet. Michigan recently canceled many rehabilitation programs for both men and women prisoners because of budget cuts.

Still, the case crystallized for LaBelle everything she had studied for. “It became clear to me that all the issues of social justice I was interested in were compressed, condensed and exacerbated inside prisons,” she says. “They were all playing out there where it is hard to find assistance. It was hard to turn away.”

So she didn’t.

As the Glover case dragged on, LaBelle became involved in other cases involving prisoners. She fought to have male guards removed from Michigan’s women’s prisons, helping end unnecessary pat-downs and custodial sexual misconduct. She challenged a policy that denied prisoners visitation rights if they had two prison substance offenses, and won at the trial and appellate level only to lose a portion of the case arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court. She filed class action lawsuits on behalf of HIVpositive prisoners and two class action lawsuits on behalf of women prisoners who had been subjected to custodial sexual abuse. One of the class action lawsuits involving women prisoners was settled in 1999; the other, involving more than 400 women, is still pending.

LaBelle’s work won praise from the top lawyers on prisoners’ rights. Brett Dignam, a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School, calls her “the model of a rebellious, zealous lawyer. The interests of her clients are paramount.”

LaBelle grew up in a working-class neighborhood south of Detroit, called “Down River” by locals, and she and her sisters were the first generation in her family to attend college. In fact, she was one of the few students from her graduating class at Lincoln Park High School to attend college.

But conversation around the dinner table gave her a solid grounding in right and wrong. “My mother and father had those working-class values that seem to get buried these days,” she says. “They believed in commitment to causes and to the equity of all people.”

She studied philosophy at Oakland University in Detroit’s northern suburbs and then left for New York to study philosophy at Barnard College and Columbia University. She returned to Michigan to study law.

In 2004, LaBelle turned her attention to the issue of children in adult prisons. Working with the ACLU, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, her team conducted research to shed light on juveniles in the Michigan criminal justice system, and later in the national justice system — and how their treatment compares to the rest of the world.

“I kept noticing in my meetings with clients that they were younger and younger — 13 and 14 years old,” she says. “I had a meeting where four of them were sucking their thumbs because they were immature and scared and they’d reverted back to this behavior.”

Instead of filing court cases, LaBelle is trying legislation and international human rights commissions. “This is new for me to work with legislation first,” she says. “But as a lawyer, sometimes you wish you could go back to the beginning and stop the flow.”

Following the release of the ACLU study on juveniles, she began helping state Sen. Liz Brater and state Rep. Paul Condino, with legislation, still pending, to change the laws that keep more than 300 juveniles in Michigan’s adult prisons without any hope of parole. Earlier laws have changed the age at which children can be automatically charged as adults — from 15 to 14. Moreover, because Michigan has a felony murder law, some juveniles in prison for murder didn’t actually pull the trigger. The ACLU report found that a significant number of respondents had been convicted of aiding and abetting, not committing, murder.

LaBelle also went to the public, conducting focus groups and using a Wayne State University’s Urban Affairs Institute survey, which showed that more than 80 percent of respondents believed that adolescents shouldn’t be imprisoned in adult facilities. The survey also showed that 72 percent of respondents believed adolescents are good candidates for rehabilitation. “There was overwhelming support to change these laws,” LaBelle says. “These laws seemed to have been put in place against public desire, intent and belief. That was heartening to me.”

Public support is crucial since prisoners’ rights legislation is rarely popular with the public — and thus the legislature. 

“Nobody gets voted into office being easy on crime,” LaBelle says. In this case, though, LaBelle believes legislators will be able to vote their conscience.

Making law rather than practicing law, however, isn’t a comfortable place for LaBelle. “I hate it,” she says. “It’s very long term and feels like you have less authority. It lacks the immediate decisiveness of a court decision in your favor.” LaBelle says she’s giving the legislation until the end of the year to pass. “If not, there’s always the courts,” she says.

LaBelle has also filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission, challenging domestic laws that put juveniles away without hope of parole.

“Juveniles don’t have a set of rights in domestic law,” she says. “But internationally we have a convention on the rights of children.” LaBelle expanded her use of an international human rights framework in these juvenile cases as a Soros Justice Fellow in 2003.

“Using international human rights law is a long shot,” says Roderick Hills, a University of Michigan law professor who has written amicus briefs for LaBelle on several cases. He is also co-counsel with her on a domestic partnership benefits case. “But it is less of a long shot than other strategies because our prison systems are a disgrace compared to European countries, Japan and Australia.”

Hills explains that the more LaBelle can focus judges’ minds on how they look to their colleagues abroad, the more luck she will have in changing what goes on in U.S. prisons. “It begins to wear on judges and justices who must feel that they belong to an uncivilized country when they have to defend our rotten prison system when they go abroad,” he says.

LaBelle says she has found judges receptive to this international human rights approach. “Judges feel we should continue to be the guardians of civil and human rights. We developed human rights law,” she says, adding that it is particularly useful to discuss human rights law in cases that include both a U.S. citizen and a foreign national. “I’m often encouraged by these cases because one person gets these rights — a defendant from Colombia for instance — and yet those same rights aren’t given to U.S. citizens. It also encourages judges to be the best they can be to protect human rights and dignity.”

It’s easy for anyone working to reform U.S. prisons to grow angry and frustrated. LaBelle’s great strength, her friends say, is her ability to avoid anger while maintaining her soft-spoken, logical approach.

Michael Pitt, a Michigan civil rights attorney known for his brash behavior, worked with LaBelle on the Livingston County Jail litigation, which challenged gender discrimination and sexual harassment at the facility. He considers her a perfect counterpoint to his aggressive style. “Deb is a careful, deliberate person,” he says. “She doesn’t fly off the handle. She’s not reactionary. She’s never flip even in her personal conversations. She’s just not cut that way.”

Such a demeanor makes her a good litigator for prisoners’ rights, Pitt says, because it can throw opposing counsel offkilter. “She uses this Socratic method of asking questions,” he continues. “She will ask the opposing counsel why they need something. Then she’ll ask if there is a way they can get what they want while also getting her clients what they need.”

That doesn’t mean LaBelle is willing to give ground in her cases, Pitt says. “She has this aura about her that these issues are the most important things you can be discussing. She believes that how we treat our prisoners is a reflection of who we are as a people, as a nation.”

But it may be LaBelle’s willingness to see the other side’s point of view — a trait she traces back to studying Hegelian philosophy — as one of her great strengths in winning cases. “People do have legitimate different opinions,” she says. “I hate the gamesmanship that I see these days. There is this rejection of respect and civility today.”

When she argued that male guards should be removed from the housing units of women’s prisons, she looked not only at how situations affected the women but also at how it affected the male guards.

“In the outside world, we teach our sons that women have a zone of privacy. I teach my son that you don’t use girls’ bathrooms, you protect a woman’s privacy,” she says. “So what happens when you take that away from men? It violated their moral precepts as well. The way they dealt with it was to simply turn these women into ‘not good girls.’ These women weren’t entitled to that privacy.”

LaBelle, however, would likely argue that it is her family more than anything that makes her successful. “They give me the balance I need,” she says of her son Jacob, 12, and her partner, Marianetta Porter, a professor of art at the University of Michigan. “I couldn’t do this work without them.”

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