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Prison Law 2021

Speaker(s): Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Brandon Buskey, Bret Grote, David C. Fathi, Jamila Johnson, Juan C. Chavez, Lydia C. Milnes, Robert M. Quackenbush, Sara Norman, Sarah Grady, Su Ming Yeh, Susan Carle
Recorded on: Jun. 22, 2021
PLI Program #: 306048

Brandon Buskey is the ACLU’s Deputy Director for Smart Justice Litigation. He leads a team dedicated to fight against mass incarceration through impact litigation on three central issues: bail, prosecutorial misconduct, and parole and probation. The team coordinates closely with the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice and ACLU affiliates, in order to achieve the Campaign’s co-equal goals of reducing prisons and jails by 50% and challenging racism within the system. Since the pandemic, Brandon has helped coordinate the ACLU’s litigation campaign against a dozen correctional facilities around the country for their mismanagement of the crisis. Brandon has been with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project since 2012. His other work focuses on public defense reform, juvenile sentencing, and collateral consequences of conviction. Prior to the ACLU, Brandon worked at the Equal Justice Initiative and the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office. He is a 2006 graduate of New York University Law School, where he was a Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Scholar and an AnBryce Scholar. Following law school he clerked for the Honorable Janet C. Hall of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. He is a 2002 graduate of North Carolina State University, where he was a Park Scholar.

Bret Grote is the Legal Director of ALC and an Adjunct Professor of Practice at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where he was recognized as the Distinguished Public Interest Scholar for his graduating class. Bret was also the Isabel and Alger Hiss Racial Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2012.

David C. Fathi is Director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, which brings challenges to conditions of confinement in prisons, jails, and other detention facilities, and works to end the policies that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world.  He worked as a staff lawyer at the Project for more than ten years before becoming director in 2010, and has litigated numerous prisoner rights cases throughout the United States.  From 2012 to 2015 he represented the ACLU in negotiations leading to adoption of the United Nations Revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules.”

From 2007 to 2010 Fathi was Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch.  The US Program works to defend the rights of particularly vulnerable groups in the United States, and has published groundbreaking reports on the death penalty, prison conditions, racial discrimination, the rights of immigrants, and many other human rights issues.

Fathi has lectured nationally and internationally on criminal justice issues.  His op-eds have appeared in The Guardian, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, and other major media outlets.  He serves on the Executive Board of Penal Reform International, a UK-based NGO that works for criminal justice reform around the world. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jamila Johnson is the managing attorney at The Promise of Justice Initiative, where she focuses her efforts on helping Louisiana heal after more than 120 years of injuries to the criminal system caused by a Jim Crow law. Her work particularly focuses on structural and systemic racism and the nexus of slavery and Jim Crow on people in prisons today.

Ms. Johnson was counsel of record on two COVID-19 prison lawsuits, and serves on the steering committee for Louisianans for Prison Alternatives. Ms. Johnson also works on Promise of Justice Initiatives End Plantation Prisons project, which envisions a future where no one in prisons are forced to work against their will; no one does work that is unsafe or in unsafe conditions; that people are compensated appropriately; and that work in prisons contributes to the person’s success in the future.

Prior to coming to The Promise of Justice Initiative, Ms. Johnson led the criminal justice reform group in Louisiana at Southern Poverty Law Center. While in this role, she joined Promise of Justice Initiative as co-counsel on a successful 6,400 person medical conditions lawsuit at Louisiana State Penitentiary. She has also filed conditions litigation in immigration detention centers in the Deep South.

Ms. Johnson graduated from the University of Washington School of Law, and following graduation went into private practice in a mid-sized Pacific Northwest law firm, where she made partner. She then relocated to the Deep South to work with people living in prisons.


Juan has practiced law in Oregon since 2013. His practice focuses on ending mass incarceration. He is the Director of the Civil Rights Project at the Oregon Justice Resource Center. He was the Northwest Regional Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild, and is a member of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association. He attended the Willamette University College of Law, where he worked at the International Human Rights Clinic and the Marion County Public Defender’s office.

Lydia Milnes is a Senior Attorney at Mountain State Justice, Inc., a non-profit legal services firm dedicated to redressing entrenched and emerging systemic social, political, and economic imbalances of power for underserved West Virginians. Lydia joined Mountain State Justice in 2012, and focuses primarily on the reform of institutions such as mental health, juvenile, and correctional facilities. In this role, Lydia has litigated cases resulting in the closure of large juvenile facilities and substantially limiting the use of isolation in juvenile facilities; addressing the conditions and treatment of residents in the state psychiatric hospitals, with emphasis on increasing the provision of community-based services; and numerous cases involving the conditions of confinement in adult correctional facilities, including § 1983 claims for excessive force and deliberate indifference to serious medical need. Lydia is currently class counsel in a state-wide class action seeking to ensure appropriate medical and mental health care for inmates held in West Virginia’s regional jails.

As an attorney at Mountain State Justice, Lydia additionally represents low-income consumers in actions to prevent foreclosures, as well as families of children with disabilities who need special education services. Lydia currently serves as a member of the West Virginia Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Before starting with Mountain State Justice, Lydia spent two years clerking for federal district judge Irene Keeley in the Northern District of West Virginia, and two and a half years clerking for Justice Margaret Workman on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Lydia obtained her J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law in 2007, and graduated with honors in political science from Haverford College in 2000. 

Ms. Morgan-Kurtz is the Managing Attorney for the Pittsburgh office of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (“PILP”).  From 2011-2013, Ms. Morgan-Kurtz worked as a legal fellow for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.  She received her J.D. from the University of Virginia, School of Law in 2011.

Robert Quackenbush is a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project in New York City, where he advocates for systemic reform of the New York City jails and New York State prisons. He is currently the lead staff attorney on the oldest active case in the Southern District of New York, Benjamin v. Brann, which was filed in 1975 and governs environmental conditions in the New York City jails. He is currently litigating M.G. v. Cuomo, a putative class action in the Southern District of New York challenging the state’s prison-to-homeless-shelter pipeline. He also engages in direct advocacy with correctional agencies on issues ranging from punitive transfers of pretrial detainees to jails far from their communities and defense attorneys, to safe and respectful housing of transgender individuals, to suicide prevention, to COVID-19 safety protocols.

Robert has also worked in the private and government sectors. Immediately after law school, he joined Rankin & Taylor (since acquired by Beldock Levine & Hoffman), a small firm that focused on § 1983 actions against police and corrections agencies. He later served as a law clerk in the Southern District of New York’s Office of Pro Se Litigation, helping to manage the nearly twenty percent of the court’s civil actions filed by unrepresented litigants.

Robert graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 2009, and is admitted to practice in New York and in the United States Virgin Islands.

Sara Norman is the managing attorney of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of youth and adults behind bars in California.  She has been with the office for 24 years and specializes in representing prisoners with disabilities and incarcerated juveniles.  She is counsel for the plaintiff class in Clark v. California, a class action on behalf of thousands of California prisoners with intellectual disabilities; in Gray v. County of Riverside, a class action lawsuit to improve health care in one of the largest county jail systems in the U.S.; and in Farrell v. Cate, a taxpayer lawsuit that forced sweeping reforms in California's juvenile justice system. 

Along with Farrell co-counsel, she was awarded a California Lawyer of the Year Award by the State Bar Foundation in 2005.  She was awarded the Pacific Juvenile Defender of the Year Award in 2006 and a Pioneer Award from the Center for Health Justice in 2009.  In 2008 and 2009, she was named one of the top women litigators in California by the San Francisco and Los Angeles Daily Journals.  Ms. Norman was a member of the litigation team in Brown v. Plata, in which the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed a lower court order requiring California to significantly reduce its severe prison overcrowding, an accomplishment for which the team was selected as a finalist for the 2010 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from the Public Justice Foundation.  She graduated from Harvard College in 1990 and Yale Law School in 1995 and clerked for Judge Robert Carter in the Southern District of New York.

Sarah Grady is a partner at Loevy & Loevy, where she leads the firm’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, which advocates for men and women locked up in jails, prisons, and detention centers across the country.

Ms. Grady has dedicated her practice to ensuring that the rights of all incarcerated people are protected. She represents individuals and classes of individuals whose rights have been violated by public officials charged with safeguarding them. Ms. Grady has represented incarcerated individuals in federal courts across the country, both at trial and on appeal.

Ms. Grady has litigated cases that resulted in millions of dollars of compensation for her clients. She has also obtained injunctive relief to halt continuing denials of her clients’ constitutional rights. In addition, Ms. Grady has argued numerous appeals and submitted several amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals regarding the rights of incarcerated individuals.

Most recently, Ms. Grady represented a class of individuals who had been detained at the Cook County Jail during the Covid-19 pandemic, seeking an injunction requiring the Jail to take adequate health precautions to reduce the spread of the disease. Plaintiffs in that case obtained preliminary injunctive relief, the majority of which was affirmed on appeal. Mays v. Dart, 974 F.3d 810 (7th Cir. 2020).

Ms. Grady currently serves on the board of directors for the Uptown Peoples’ Law Center and the Illinois Prison Project, and serves on the community advisory board of the Collective Peoples’ Rights Collaborative.

Ms. Grady graduated cum laude from Northwestern University School of Law in 2012. Following her graduation, she served as a law clerk to the Honorable Matthew F. Kennelly of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Su Ming Yeh is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, where she represents incarcerated people on their civil rights claims.  Ms. Yeh has litigated dozens of individual cases and class action suits challenging unconstitutional conditions for people who are incarcerated, institutionalized, or detained, and argued successfully before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  These include a class action that obtained universal Hepatitis C treatment for over 5000 Pennsylvania prisoners, and successfully representing an immigration detainee who was sexually abused at the family immigration detention center in Pennsylvania.  She also served as an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she co-taught the Civil Practice Clinic for 5 years.

Prior to law school, she worked on social justice issues as a science teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in the Kingdom of Tonga; the Executive Director of the Asian Professional Extension, Inc., a mentoring organization for Asian-American inner-city youth in New York City; and a community organizer with the Coalition for Asian-American Children and Families.

Ms. Yeh was the President of the Asian Pacific Bar Association of Pennsylvania in 2015 and currently serves on its board, is a board member of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s House of Delegates. She is a previous co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Civil Rights Committee, and previous Chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Public Interest Section. Ms. Yeh graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was a Public Interest Scholar and Senior Editor of the Law Review, and graduated with Honors from Brown University.  Following law school, she clerked for the Hon. Gerard E. Lynch, U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York.

Susan Carle is professor of law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches legal ethics, employment discrimination, labor and employment law, and constitutional law.  Her primary areas of research and writing involve the history and ethics of public interest lawyering. Among other works, she is the author of Defining the Struggle:  National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915, which won the Organization of American Historians’ Liberty Legacy Award. She is the author of numerous articles on legal ethics and professional responsibility. She serves on the legal ethics advisory board of the National Disability Rights Network, periodically conducts legal ethics trainings for lawyers who represent various types of public interest clients, and has greatly enjoyed the comparative aspect of teaching professional responsibility in a number of different legal systems in Europe, India, Russia and Latin America.  She is past chair of the Association of American Law Schools Section on Professional Responsibility and Committee on Professional Development, serves on the Governing Board of the Research Committee on the Sociology of Law of the International Sociological Association, and is a member of its International Working Group on the Legal Professions.