Summer of Civil Rights: An Interview with Natasha Wilkins, PILI Intern

Natasha Wilkins (right) working with J. Cunyon Gordon, Director of the Settlement Assistance Program (seated).

Natasha Wilkins (right) working with J. Cunyon Gordon, Director of the Settlement Assistance Program (seated).

By: Camille Garcia-Mendoza

Natasha Wilkins is a third-year law student at Michigan State University completing a summer internship at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights as the Alumni Named Intern for the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) Student Internship Program.

This is an edited version of her interview about her experiences working with the Settlement Assistance Program and the Voting Rights Project as an intern.

What inspired you to go to law school?

“I grew up in Springfield, Illinois and after graduating from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, I spent three years in Memphis, Tennessee teaching high school through Teach for America. I decided to go to law school because I recognized that a lot of the injustices I saw in the communities I worked and lived in stemmed from issues around policy. I realized that policymakers did not understand the realities of the communities that they were making policy for. I wanted to enter into those spaces to bring light to the perspectives, the realities and the experiences that were being overlooked.

What work are you currently doing with the Settlement Assistance Program?

The work that I’m doing with the Settlement Assistance Program is representing an individual who is currently detained at Cook County Jail and  is bringing an excessive force claim against Cook County Department of Corrections. He is settling the case, which means the client and the Cook County Department of Corrections have agreed that the case will not go to trial and that they will try to negotiate instead. Only 3% of cases go to trial, so settling is common. However, our client was a pro se litigant. This means he was representing himself, so he didn’t have a lawyer when he was trying to take the case to trial. Research has shown that when people are settling a case their outcomes are better when they have counsel. That’s the whole point of the Settlement Assistance Program: to provide counsel to pro se litigants in negotiations so that they can have the best settlement possible. I’m trying to create the best settlement possible for my client in his current settlement with Cook County.

Working with an individual who is currently detained presents some unique challenges. My client  is currently detained at Cook County Jail, so I can’t just call him and ask him questions. The only way I can talk to the client is to go to the jail in-person. That’s created some obstacles that I’ve had to work around considering that the court sets deadlines and expects you to meet them regardless of how accessible your client is. Another unique part of this experience has been navigating the intersection of this settlement and the client’s primary case. This settlement is not related to the client’s primary case that he is battling in relation to his detention. The case I am working on is related to an event which victimized him during his detention. These two overlapping cases illustrate the complexity of the criminal justice system since he has various other court dates and attorneys that he’s working with. Our case is a small piece in this bigger picture. Working with a detained client and dealing with the intersection of his cases have shown me some challenges lawyers working with the criminal justice system face.

So far, I have met with the client in-person once. We wanted to meet in person twice but he was scheduled to attend his sentencing hearing for his primary case so we had to wait until we learned if he had been transferred to a state prison or if he would remain in Cook County’s custody before we could determine when we could speak with him again. This just shows how all of the different moving pieces of a client’s case can become very complicated.

One part of the case that has pleasantly surprised me is the attitude of the Assistant State Attorney. He understands the challenges of working with someone who is currently detained, so he has been very willing to make adjustments. I’ve never worked with opposing counsel and I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been a good experience.

My biggest hope is that the client feels satisfied with the settlement we achieve. He won’t be able to be in the room or at the courthouse for the settlement, but we will be able to talk to him over the phone while we are negotiating the settlement. I hope he feels that Cook County is recognizing that he was harmed in some way and that they are doing something to correct that.

What work are you currently doing with the Voting Rights Project?

In addition to the work I’ve been doing with the Settlement Assistance Program, I’ve also been working with the Voting Rights Project. Elections are always happening and voting rights are at the forefront of civil rights activism. We’re working to make sure as the 2020 elections begin that people in communities that generally face challenges around access to voting have the tools and resources they need to cast their votes and be counted. For example, I am analyzing voter list maintenance procedures in Illinois because of concerns about who is being removed from voter rolls and why. I also helped represent Chicago Lawyers’ Committee at a hearing about unfair censorship in prisons. Censorship poses a threat to education in prison, such as the workshops called for in the Civics in Prison bill passed by the legislature and awaiting the Governor’s signature.

“The staff attorneys invite us to their meetings and phone calls, and they introduce us as colleagues when we join in these spaces, which I think is awesome.”

Would you recommend an internship with Chicago Lawyers’ Association to others?

Based on the work I’ve been doing, I would definitely recommend Chicago Lawyers’ Committee and the Settlement Assistance Program in particular to other law students who are interested in public interest law or civil rights law. I’ve done several internships and this one has been extremely insightful. I think that the attorneys here make it a point to ensure interns get a diverse experience. Interns are looked at as part of the staff. The staff attorneys invite us to their meetings and phone calls, and they introduce us as colleagues when we join in these spaces, which I think is awesome.

I’d also say that Chicago Lawyers’ Committee goes above and beyond regarding programming for interns. Every week there are opportunities for us to learn something new about the legal practice outside of the office. There is also internal programming that allows us to have more time with different staff attorneys to learn what they do, about their paths to get here, and what it truly means to be deeply engaged in public interest law. I’ve appreciated the wholeness of the program. They don’t just want us to come and do research, instead they want us to learn what it really looks like to practice law.”