Illinois Prison Project and Jenner & Block Welcome Home Kensley Hawkins
Our Pro Bono Commitment
Kensley “Sonny” Hawkins, who turned 70 years old this year after spending over 39 years in prison, walked out of Shawnee Correctional Center last week a free man. Mr. Hawkins suffered from numerous serious medical issues that made him extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, and we are overjoyed that he returned home to his loving daughter and grandchildren.
Mr. Hawkins grew up in a single-parent household and was one of 10 children. To support his mother, he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the United States Army, where he simultaneously earned his GED, worked as a cook, and earned a National Defense Service Medaland and a parachute badge. After leaving the Army, Mr. Hawkins attended Chicago State University with dreams of becoming an electrical engineer but once again faced the overwhelming pressure of supporting his mother and his family. Mr. Hawkins dropped out of school yet again. In the midst of his financial stress, Mr. Hawkins’ brother committed suicide in their childhood home. Distraught and desperate, Mr. Hawkins agreed to be the get-away driver of the van used in a gas station robbery. The van was later traced back to a person who had been killed before the group went to rob the gas station. As a result, Mr. Hawkins was convicted for murder based on the conduct of his co-defendant, under the controversial theory of accountability.
Always industrious, Mr. Hawkins worked throughout his incarceration. He started as an upholsterer and cabinet maker at Stateville Furniture Factory. Skilled with his hands with a knack for engineering, Mr. Hawkins made products like desks, chairs, bookcases, and cabinets and was eventually promoted to “lead worker” at the factory. More recently, Mr. Hawkins ran the “Set Up” department of the Shawnee Metal Factory. If Mr. Hawkins has a product design, he can quickly prepare the sheet metal for welding and painting. Throughout his incarceration, Mr. Hawkins has been repeatedly recognized for his service and high-quality work and hopes to transfer some of the skills he’s acquired to his new life as a free man. Throughout his incarceration, Mr. Hawkins remained close to a large network of family and friends, including his devoted daughter Ramonia.
Mr. Hawkins was zealously represented by Department Counsel Lisa Schoedel at Jenner & Block, as part of IPP’s pro bono program. Ms. Schoedel's commitment and dedication to Mr. Hawkins and his case paid off: Last week, she received a call from the Illinois Governor’s Office, telling her that Mr. Hawkins would be coming home.
Associate Elizabeth Deutsch Highlights Successful Suit against the SBA Regarding CARES Funding
On December 10, Jenner & Block Associate Elizabeth B. Deutsch presented at the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs’ annual John Burke Pro Bono Breakfast, which highlights the pro bono work of the Committee and its partnerships with law firms, including Jenner & Block. The discussion focused on the firm’s winning lawsuit against the Small Business Administration, challenging the agency’s implementation of the CARES Act’s PPP loan program to arbitrarily exclude from loan eligibility disproportionately Black business owners with criminal histories. The program also featured plaintiff and client Sekwan Merritt, a Maryland small-business owner whom the lawsuit made eligible for PPP capital. Ms. Deutsch worked on the case with Partner Kali Bracey, Associate Jacob D. Alderdice, and Paralegal Cheryl Olson.
Team Helps Pro Bono Client Secure Compassionate Release from Prison in the Wake of COVID-19 Threat
In 2012, our client was sentenced to 252 months in prison for a non-violent drug offense, a sentence that was 12 months longer than the minimum sentence. He has been an inmate at FCI Oakdale in Louisiana, despite being tried in the Northern District of Illinois and residing in Illinois. Oakdale has experienced a severe outbreak of COVID-19 and has a staggering 18.5% confirmed infection rate. This percentage is about 22 times worse than the United States overall. Furthermore, Oakdale has faced heavy scrutiny (including media attention) for its wardens’ negligent handling of the pandemic and endangering inmates. Our client has three of the most common COVID-19 comorbidities, making him highly susceptible to severe illness if he were to contract the virus. Out of fear for his life, he filed a pro se petition with Judge Lefkow for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).
On June 18, Judge Lefkow appointed Partner Paul B. Rietema to assist our client with his petition. Associate Maliha Ikram quickly worked to gather necessary information to support the petition. Maliha spoke to our client on June 19to glean information on his friends, family and community members. Maliha contacted dozens of these individuals over the course of 10 days. On July 1, Paul and Maliha were able to make an evidentiary submission that included 22 letters and affidavits in support of our client’s release.
On July 7, our client’s motion was granted and his sentence was reduced to time served. He has been ordered to be released from custody at Oakdale as soon as practicable. His term of supervised release will commence immediately upon his release, with his first six months to be served in home confinement. Though our client’s prison sentence would have otherwise run until 2028, the court released him to home confinement with the remainder of his term to be served on supervised release.
In granting his motion, the court noted that our client does not pose “a danger to individual or community safety” and, while incarcerated, has shown remorse for past conduct, earned his GED, and enrolled in several self-bettering courses. To have kept him imprisoned at Oakdale would have been to put him at “extraordinary risk” for his life.
The team was assisted by Legal Assistant Mirella Marquez, Manager of Docketing Services Na’eem Conway, and Docket Assistant Dylan Doppelt, who were instrumental in compiling and filing documents on our compressed timeline.
Central District of California Cites Jenner & Block Amicus Brief in an Order Granting Injunctive Relief to At-Risk ICE Detainees
On April 20, 2020, the Honorable Jesus G. Bernal of the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted a preliminary injunction to a nationwide class of persons detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The injunction requires that ICE do more to protect detainees from the risks of COVID-19, including by freeing many of those who face the greatest risk of serious harm due to their preexisting medical conditions. The court’s decision cited and drew from a brief filed by Jenner & Block Partners Clifford W. Berlow, Michele L. Slachetka and Christopher J. Rillo and Associate Faaris (Fares) Akremi on behalf of 16 public health experts as amici curiae in support of the class plaintiffs.
The court summarized that “[t]he central question presented” by the detainee plaintiffs’ motion for injunctive relief “is whether the conditions in which [ICE] detainees are held during the pandemic likely violate the Constitution, and if so, what measures can and should be taken to ensure constitutionally permissible conditions of detention.” Fraihat v. U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, EDCV 19-1546 JGB (SHKx), slip op. at 1-2 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 20, 2020). In its decision, the court observed that the class plaintiffs were supported by the firm’s clients as amici curiae: 16 professors at American medical schools located across the nation, virtually all of whom are practicing emergency room and intensive care unit physicians. In their brief, the amici had taken the position that ICE’s lackluster infection-control guidance was inadequate to stop the highly contagious, life-threatening disease and contextualized the extreme risk faced by vulnerable people detained in close quarters with no meaningful opportunity to socially distance or practice the protective measures necessary to prevent illness. Further, they had maintained that the risk of an outbreak at an ICE detention facility was not just to the detainees, but instead to all those in neighboring communities whose access to medical care would be jeopardized if local hospitals become overrun with detainees infected with COVID-19.
Embracing these points and the underlying medical and scientific evidence, the court provisionally certified an injunctive class comprising “[a]ll people who are detained in ICE custody” and who suffer from at least one condition or disability—defined broadly in the court’s order—that “plac[es] them at heightened risk of severe illness and death upon contracting the COVID-19 virus.” id. at 21-22 & nn. 20, 21. The court then concluded that “[p]laintiffs have established they will suffer the irreparable harm of increased likelihood of severe illness and death if a preliminary injunction is not entered,” id. at 36, and that the public’s interest tips sharply in detainees’ favor—in large part because, as amici had explained, ICE’s “failure to protect the most vulnerable detainees could quickly overwhelm local hospitals with insufficient ICU” capacities, id. at 37.
The injunctive relief is broad. ICE is required to, nationwide: (1) identify all detainees with any of a broad range of “risk factors” that render them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19; (2) make timely, individualized custody determinations for those detainees, including consideration of whether each detainee herself is willing and able to be released from custody; and (3) issue a performance standard clearly defining “the minimum acceptable detention conditions” for at-risk detainees. id. at 38.