Our Pro Bono Commitment
A lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina alleges horrific living conditions for the more than 250 children detained by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, the agency tasked by law with providing South Carolina’s detained children with care and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Children held in DJJ facilities are routinely subjected to violence, months-long isolation in solitary confinement, and a lack of meaningful educational or mental health services, according to the lawsuit, which was brought on behalf of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights South Carolina, and Justice 360.
“These children are in danger every day and every night, and DJJ has consistently failed to contain the violence,” said Lindsey Vann, Executive Director of Justice 360. “These are systemic problems that need appropriate resources, authority, and support to enact real change.”
According to the lawsuit, there is sewage water in the cells, feces on the walls, and cockroaches in the food of the facilities. The lawsuit alleges that youth-on-youth violence is rampant, with staff often turning a blind eye or even instigating assaults on children. The lawsuit further alleges that DJJ has resorted to 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement as a default management tool to house sick kids, “protect” children from violence, or address even the most minor of infractions.
“South Carolina exposes the children in its juvenile justice system—most of whom are Black—to barbaric conditions,” said Brenda Murphy, President of the NAACP South Carolina State Conference of Branches. “Children in custody suffer from constant violence, are isolated for weeks and months, and are denied the basic rehabilitative services they need and are entitled to. Our most vulnerable children must receive support, not punishment.”
Despite claims that it operates its own accredited school district, helps youth pursue workforce development opportunities, and provides rehabilitative services, most children receive no educational services, according to the lawsuit. The lack of educational resources at DJJ facilities is especially damaging for the children who suffer from learning impairments or physical disabilities, as no special education services are provided, the lawsuit says. One child, who struggles with verbal communication, reported receiving only a single day of education over a period of nine months.
“DJJ holds some of our State’s most traumatized and vulnerable children,” said Allen Chaney, Legal Director for the ACLU of South Carolina. “If conditions don’t immediately and dramatically improve, then the only adequate remedy will be to release children from these horrific conditions.”
The DJJ has a well-documented track record — dating back to the 1960s — of violating the constitutional and statutory rights of the children in its care. Even with decades’ worth of findings and interventions, DJJ has failed to make substantial progress in implementing lasting solutions, the lawsuit says.
“DJJ has been aware of the ongoing violence and unconstitutional conditions at their facilities for years, and yet they still fail to protect the children entrusted to their care,” said Jenner & Block Partner Previn Warren. “Our hope is to create lasting and meaningful reform right away to end the trauma these children are experiencing.”
The lawsuit, filed jointly with the ACLU of South Carolina, the NAACP, and the law firms Wyche and Jenner & Block, asks the court to declare that the department is violating the constitutional rights of South Carolina children and seeks judicial intervention to facilitate immediate remedies such as clean water, dry beds, healthy food, safety from violence, freedom from unconstitutional uses of solitary confinement, meaningful access to education and mental health resources, and accommodations for children with disabilities.
Mr. Warren and Partner Jeremy M. Creelan led this effort and received support from Associates William R. Weaver, Mary E. Marshall, Jessica J. Sawadogo, Jacob D. Alderdice, Jeremy H. Ershow, and Amit B. Patel, and Paralegal Adam H. Weidman.
Jenner & Block Partner Andrew W. Vail, who is the first general counsel of the United Way of Metro Chicago, discusses the importance of volunteering in a United Way article titled “Volunteering: A Labor of the Soul.” The article describes Mr. Vail as a “fierce advocate” for public service and sharing his skills in law. It notes that he is the immediate past chair of the firm’s pro bono program who spearheaded our five-year $250 million commitment to pro bono service. “The need in our community is so great, and volunteering can mean so much, including to those who engage. There is no time better than now to volunteer,” Mr. Vail says.
Jenner & Block filed an amicus brief in Travis County, Texas in Doe v. Abbott on behalf of Professor Ron Beal, a Texas administrative law expert, in support of the plaintiffs’ application for a temporary injunction and as part of our pro bono work with Lambda Legal and the ACLU to defend transgender youth rights.
In the brief, the plaintiffs challenged the decision of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to follow the directive of Governor Abbott to investigate gender-affirming care for transgender minors as “child abuse” under the Texas Family Code pursuant to a non-binding opinion issued by Attorney General Paxton.
Professor Beal argued that the DFPS decision to enforce the Attorney General’s novel interpretation of the Texas Family Code in conducting abuse and neglect investigations exceeded the agency’s statutory authority. The Texas Legislature previously considered and declined to amend the definition of “child abuse” under the Family Code to include medical procedures identified in the Attorney General’s opinion, and neither DFPS nor its commissioner had the authority to expand the definition of “child abuse” under Texas law. The brief also explained that, even if DFPS and its commissioner had the authority to enforce an expanded definition of “child abuse,” that the action constituted an interpretive rule, which failed to comply with the mandatory notice, comment, and justification procedures under the Texas Administrative Procedures Act.
Special Counsel Benjamin T. Halbig and Associate Reanne Zheng took the lead in authoring the brief, supervised by Partner Clifford W. Berlow. Partners Adam G. Unikowsky, Mark Davis, and Laurie Edelstein; Associates Steven Tinetti and Chasel Lee; Pro Bono Counsel Nura Maznavi; and Junior Paralegal Grace Liberman assisted.
On March 11, the Convening Authority for the Military Commissions ordered a sentence of 10 years for Jenner & Block client Majid Khan. Applying credit for time served from the date of his guilty plea on February 29, 2012, Mr. Khan's sentence ended on March 1, 2022.
For more than a decade, Co-Managing Partner Katya Jestin has worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Military Commissions Defense Organization to represent Mr. Khan pro bono.
“This is a historic day. Majid has fulfilled his cooperation obligations completely, and his sentence has been served. He must now be released from detention,” Ms. Jestin said in a statement. “Majid’s torture at the hands of the CIA in the name of national security was illegal and a shameful episode in our nation’s history.”
Mr. Khan abandoned involvement with terrorism more than a decade ago and has been providing substantial cooperation to US authorities since then. In response to the Convening Authority’s decision, Mr. Khan’s legal team, including Ms. Jestin, called for his transfer from Guantánamo “without delay.”
“We look forward to working with the Biden administration to ensure that Mr. Khan is promptly and safely resettled in a third country where he can be reunited with his wife and daughter and begin the next chapter of his life,” the team said in a statement.
A class action lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois reveals the egregious living conditions for approximately 1,000 prisoners at the Northern Reception Center in Crest Hill, the point of entry for most prisoners into the Illinois Department of Corrections prison system.
Hundreds of prisoners reported appalling conditions at the prison, including infestations of rats, mice, flies, and cockroaches; plumbing that frequently spills raw sewage into cells, communal showers, and even the kitchen; and under-cooked, spoiled, and insufficient amounts of food. Additionally, drinking water is brown, often smells like sewage, and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) testing reveals it has over eight times the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for lead. Prisoners have not received any yard time since November, 2021, meaning they essentially spend all hours of the day, every day, in their squalid cells.
Prisoners are held at the Northern Reception Center in these terrible conditions for months before being transferred elsewhere in Illinois’ prison system.
“Entering prison is always going to be a shock,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), “but forcing people to endure infestation by vermin, undrinkable water, and extended solitary confinement when they first enter Illinois’ prison system is unacceptable and serves no legitimate purpose.”
The lawsuit, filed jointly by UPLC and Jenner & Block on behalf of the prisoners, asks the court to declare that the Illinois Department of Corrections is violating the prisoners’ constitutionally protected rights and require action to improve conditions in the prison.
“Prison officials have known how bad the conditions are for years but they’ve chosen to ignore the situation and shuffle prisoners along in the penal system,” said Jenner & Block Partner Benjamin J. Bradford. “We want to shine a light on the inhumane conditions at the Northern Reception Center; it’s time to amplify prisoners’ voices and force change at this facility.” Mr. Bradford led the Jenner & Block team along with Partners Terri L. Mascherin and Associates Lindsey A. Lusk and Garrett J. Salzman. Other team members include Alexander E. Cottingham, Emily A. Merrifield, Steven Tinetti, Arianne R. Wilt, and Vincent Wu.
The Uptown People’s Law Center and Jenner & Block are working in partnership on this case as part of Jenner & Block’s five-year pro bono commitment (2021-2025) to provide $250 million in free legal services to those in need of access to justice.
For three weeks in December, a team of 26 Jenner & Block lawyers researched the availability of and access to mental health services for children in grades K-12 in 45 different states. Client Inseparable and 16 other organizations joined to form the Hopeful Futures Campaign, which used the data to assess the accessibility of mental health services in all 50 states.
On February 16, 2022, Inseparable released the first national report card that scores every state on policies that support school mental health services, with recommendations for how to improve. The report card was reported by news outlets including MindSightNews, NPR, and USA Today.
The team included Partners Carissa Coze, Alexander M. Smith, and Joseph J. Torres; Special Counsel Danny S. Chami and Emily M. Savner; Associates Karolina L. Bartosik, Sophia L. Cai, Jenna L. Conwisar, Edward Crouse, Allison N. Douglis, Kate E. Fintel, Kevin J. Kennedy, Mary E. Marshall, Lawrence W. McMahon, Eric E. Petry, Annie K. Schoenfeldt, Madeline Skitzki, Tyler G. Westrich, William A. Williams, and Eric W. Wolff; Discovery Attorneys Chuck Downs and Matt Par; and Law Clerks Deanna Krokos, Areeb Salim, Jessica Sawadogo, and Jonathan Steinberg. Legal Assistant Elizabeth Visick assisted, and Partner Gail H. Morse led the project.