In 1992, an 18-year-old African-American named Andre Jones was arrested in Mendenhall, Miss., and was later found dead in a prison shower stall. It was ruled that he had committed suicide by hanging himself with a shoelace.
The Jones family denied that Andre committed suicide and pointed to 22 other cases in Mississippi of black men found dead from hanging in their cells that occurred since 1987. The family alleged that the hangings were a new form of lynching by the guards.
The Jones case garnered national attention and students from CUNY Law School in Flushing took notice. They contacted attorneys working on a similar case and asked to help. The attorneys agreed, and the Mississippi Project was born.
For the last 15 years, students have spent two weeks in January working with experienced attorneys. They travel to Louisiana and Mississippi to fight for the civil rights of local residents who get little legal help.
The project was founded by students who continue to organize and operate it with little assistance from the law school. The student project director coordinates fundraising efforts and acts as liaison between new volunteers and the organizations they will be working with.
Class of 1995 Law School alumnus and a founder, Jaribu Hill, is currently executive director of the Mississippi Center for Workers and Human Rights. Participating students work there to provide support, legal help and training for low-wage, nonunion workers in Mississippi.
Hill stays in touch with the students in charge of the upcoming trip and decides what the volunteers will be doing. Participants immerse themselves in work for Hill, the Innocence Project, or the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing. Law students handle the majority of the case work under the supervision of attorneys.
Those who work for the ACLU participate in projects ranging from welfare reform to reproductive rights. These include access to a full range of safe and affordable contraception, safe and legal abortion, and the right to make pregnancy decisions without threat or coercion.
ACLU participants this year reached out to teens to educate them about safe sex practices. The teens then act as peer educators and share what they learned.
Every semester the project holds information sessions and students who are interested can add their names to the list. Shelly Quilty, a former participant who is currently the project director, said “all you have to do is make a commitment and help us raise funds.”
It costs about $12,000 for a group of 14 students. The money is used to transport the participants to and from their volunteer sites and for a daily food stipend. The ACLU has helped in finding students low- cost housing.
Quilty was part of the ’05-’06 and ’06-’07 delegations. “The program is enticing because I can apply my fledgling lawyer skills in the field,” she said. Jayna Turchek, who participated as a first-year student this year, feels the same.
Quilty’s first experience was in January 2006, after the hurricanes had hit Louisiana and Mississippi. “You see the footage on CNN and read the papers, but being there made it so much more shocking. It pulled the rug out from under me,” she said.
Turchek attended Tulane University as an undergraduate and had not been back to New Orleans since before Katrina hit. “It was horrific just to see it. You can’t really understand if you’ve never been down there,” she said.
The students were charged with helping residents from one of the most severely impacted areas: the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. Some students assisted attorneys working on the “Bulldozer Project.” Participants were responsible for rummaging through debris to find documents of identification and personal belongings to keep displaced residents informed on what was happening to their homes.
Mississippi volunteers worked in Biloxi and Gulfport interviewing residents in the poorest communities to learn their problems, which ranged from insurance and immigration issues, to a sense of outrage at the government’s response.
The French Quarter in New Orleans, a popular tourist attraction, which was largely unaffected by the hurricanes, received money to assist in rebuilding while, in the words of Turchek, “go just a little outside the city and it’s just razed land. It is like class action discrimination of poor folks.”
Students view this type of injustice as an incentive to continue participating in the project.