After a brief hiatus, Logikcull’s eDiscovery and legal technology podcast, CullCast, is back. You might remember CullCast from such classics as “Winning Clients and Influencing Luddites with Ernest Svenson” and “Rule Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes with Judge David Campbell.”
CullCast features legal innovators, influencers, and disruptors—people who are reshaping the legal profession for the better. What better person, then, to relaunch the podcast with than Keith Wattley, founder and executive director of UnCommon Law. At UnCommon Law, a small non-profit law office in Oakland, California, Wattley and his team work with California prisoners serving life terms with the possibility of parole, work that is, in Wattley’s terms, “closer to therapy than lawyering.”
You can listen to the podcast below or, if your headphones are broken or you just prefer the written word to the spoken one, read the transcript even further below. We hope you enjoy and if you’re inspired by the work of UnCommon Law—and we hope you will be.
CullCast #11 - Changing Lives With Keith Wattley & UnCommon Law
Logikcull: Hi everyone and thanks for joining us for the relaunch of Logikcull’s podcast, “CullCast,” where we feature conversations with legal influencers and innovators. I’m Casey Sullivan of Logikcull.com and today we’re going to be talking to Keith Wattley, who’s the founder and executive director of UnCommon Law.
Now, if you follow Logikcull, you know one of the things we like to talk about a lot is democratizing discovery. To us, that means making a process that’s often difficult, expensive, risky, something that is simple, powerful, and available to pretty much anyone—instantly. So, part of that is supporting pro bono and public interest work.
But, we’re not here to talk about what Logikcull does today. We’re here to look at the work of UnCommon Law. Now, UnCommon Law is a small, non-profit law firm based out of Oakland, California, that provides legal services to prisoners facing life with the possibility of parole. In the past 11 years, UnCommon Law has worked with dozens of prisoners to get them out of prison and back into society.
Keith Wattley: It’s closer to therapy than lawyering that we do.
Logikcull: That’s Keith Wattley, the executive director of UnCommon Law. I sat down with Keith recently to discuss his work.
Wattley: I have been an attorney for, let’s see, about 19 years now.
Logikcull: Keith was already working in criminal justice and prisoners’ rights before founding UnCommon Law.
Wattley: At a nonprofit called the Prison Law Office. And there, I was involved in some of the class action litigation. That involved reviewing a lot of files, meeting with a lot of clients, and also touring the prisons to identify problems with their provision of mental health care—that was my main responsibility there. And, while doing that, I would often encounter people who were in a mental health crisis, who usually hadn’t received the level of treatment that they needed. I might meet with them and talk to them for a few minutes and go back and write a report about what I found and what seemed to be missing and make some recommendations, perhaps.
Over time, that report might get incorporated in a court order someday, some where—many months later. In the meantime, that person is still there. I would be sort of be left with this sense that I hadn’t done enough for him or her.
While that was really important, absolutely necessary, systemic change work, I also needed something that would give me a more immediate connection, a benefit to an individual client.
Logikcull: Keith found that connection one day, after receiving a letter from an inmate.
Wattley: As I was reviewing the mail and found that a client who was serving a life sentence had written to the office saying, “I need help with this. I’m facing the parole board and they’re trying to take away a parole date they gave me.”
I said, “Well, that seems interesting. Let me see what I can learn about the case. Maybe this person did something wrong to jeopardize his release.” Turned out he hadn’t, they were just going to reconsider their decision. That seemed unfair to me. I started working with him and represented him in this hearing. He was able to keep his parole date and went home.
I got to see the things he got to do after that. He got a good job, got married and had a kid, and finished college. I said, there’s a direct connection obviously between my efforts and his future. I was hooked from then. So, a couple years later, I started UnCommon Law. That was 2006 that I started it and I’ve been doing it ever sense.
Logikcull: Alright, so how does UnCommon Law come together with Logikcull? Logikcull CEO and co-founder Andy Wilson explains the beginning of this relationship.
Andy Wilson: We got involved with Keith and UnCommon Law maybe five or six years ago. My sister-in-law was working at the Prison Law Office. So, I learned what Keith was doing at UnCommon Law and that initial meeting made me realize there could be an opportunity to help him.
Logikcull: Like everyone else, nonprofits like UnCommon Law are facing a vast growth of information and data that can sometimes be hard to handle.
Wilson: The amount of information that he was getting for this quasi discovery, trying to get these people out of prison, was mostly paper, but it started to become more and more electronic.
Information should not put you at a disadvantage. With all this information exploding, more emails, text messages, photos, and drone data, home data—all this information is exploding. But the deadlines aren’t really changing for these people. So, somebody like UnCommon Law, who is a nonprofit who doesn’t have a lot of resources, is starting to get bombarded with more and more information which, if it takes them too long to get through that information, it’s going to drag out the judicial process. And in his case, it’s going to keep people who shouldn’t be in prison [in prison] longer than they need to be.
Logikcull: Alright, so what does the work UnCommon Law does actually look like? What’s a typical matter like?
Wattley: Let’s see. So, a typical case that we might have would be someone who—a family member contacts us to say, “My son is going to be eligible for parole next year and we want someone to represent him.” We’ll figure out if we can actually help him, whether we have the resources and time, etc.
Then, if so, we’ll start working by doing an initial meeting just to figure out how much work they’ve been doing since they’ve been in prison to get ready for an actual parole hearing. Sometimes that depends on the prison they’re housed in. Some prisons have a lot more access to programs that will give them the tools to understand themselves and be able to explain that to the parole board. Some prisons have almost none of those types of programs. So, we need to figure out where the client is and figure out what their game plan is going to be.
After that, we’ll meet with a client for anywhere from three or four or five times to eight, ten, twelve times between that first meeting and their actual hearing—until they’re ready. Ready means they understand all the various factors that contributed to them committing this crime. And that they’ve spent their time in prison addressing those factors, so they can map out a plan going forward that, upon their release, they can map out stay on the right path.
Most of the work is in the intervening year or so, in the prison visiting rooms, sitting across from the client for a couple of hours each time. We help them figure out those things. Usually those factors are rooted in their childhood and upbringing, those kinds of things, and we have to make sure they can identify that and structure or settle for programs in prison that help them address that.
Sometimes it takes a lot longer than a year. Sometimes we get them ready for a parole hearing but it’s not ready enough for the parole board. They say, well we see you, we find you’re not yet suitable for parole. We’ll deny you and we’ll see you again.
Sometimes it may take another year and a half, may take three years, may take five years later. In the meantime, we work continue to work with them and get them ready. When it works out, they’re granted parole. A few months later, if the governor okays it, then they get to go home and rejoin their families.
Wilson: There’s 35,000 inmates in the California prison system on life sentences. It’s incredibly expensive to keep people in prison. And Keith has gotten out, over a couple decades, less than 200 people. That’s a pretty big savings, right? It’s millions of dollars in savings for the state. But there’s 35,000 people there. Of course, some of them should stay in prison because they’re really bad people—but that, I don’t think, is the majority. The faster we can get those people out of prison and back into their communities and functioning in a positive way—it’s a win-win.
Wattley: So, we’ve worked with a number of volunteer attorneys, social workers, a bunch of law students. We have a program where we work with law students, about a dozen every year. So, we handle about 60 or 70 individual parole hearings every year, plus a bunch of cases in court for those serving life sentences.
Logikcull: So, what are some of the barriers that impact the work that you’re doing, your clients, your organization?
Wattley: One of the biggest barriers we find is that, there’s a—we see it as a false dichotomy between people who were convicted of serious or violent crimes and those who were convicted of nonviolent crimes, like drug crimes or property crimes.
I say it’s a false dichotomy, because, from what I see having worked with a lot of individuals and all different kinds of crimes, is that there are so many similarities and so many patterns that tend to repeat themselves within both of those groups, that it’s really hard to say that one is really different from the other.
But it’s been a matter of convenience, I think, for policy makers and even advocates to “Let’s focus on these crimes that most people agree shouldn’t result in someone going to prison.” Someone who is drug addict, for example, shouldn't get a life sentence in prison. Someone who steals video tapes from Kmart shouldn’t get a life sentence. Most of us can agree on that. Let’s focus on that because that gets a lot of people out of prison, or some way to get out of prison.
But, the people left behind often lived a very similar lifestyle, were motivated by the same kind of things. But they basically had that worst-case scenario drug deal that really went bad, and here they are in prison for a violent crime or a serious crime.
The challenge is having the broader public, and even the parole board, understand that these are folks that also deserve an opportunity to get themselves out of prison.
Logikcull: Of all the work that you’ve done over the years, what is one thing that you are most proud of?
Wattley: Well, that’s a tough one. It’s probably impossible to single out one thing. Among my favorite moments, I would say, there’s a client who I spent some time with in preparation for his parole hearing. Early on in the representation, I detected there was something missing in his understanding of what was happening, in our conversations and what the process was about.
We had a psychologist go meet with him and the psychologist came back and quickly said, “Your client suffered a series of traumatic incidents as a kid, in which he was directly battered or he fell and hit his head, several times.” Throughout his childhood, he had a lot of difficulty.
By the time he was in prison, and he went to prison at age 19, in a drug deal that went bad, he had never learned to read or write.
But he had also become an expert in masking the fact that he didn’t know how to read or write. So he got to prison and was able to follow other people, pick up on cues and clues and stay under the radar. But, as the psychologist was explaining to me, this has hurt him, because now the parole board is expecting him to articulate this really high level of insight into himself and the factors that contributed to his crime—and he’s not able to do that.
So, I went back and I met with him and we recognized that this was something that he’d been masking for some time and he needed to own up to it, in order to get the help that he needs. If you identify that you have certain difficulties, the prison is supposed to provide some sort of accommodation. They don’t always do that; they don’t usually do that in fact.
His parole hearing came up. He did a fine job, mostly just admitting the challenges he had, the fact that he had been masking these difficulties for years.
And they denied him parole.
At that point, he came out of the hearing and he thanked me, profusely really. He said, “You know, I really have to thank you because, before you sent that psychologist to see me, I thought I was just stupid. But now I understand that there’s actually something wrong, something that happened that I can get help for.”
He’d been in prison for 30 years. Thirty years. He finally had this affirmation that there’s something he can get help for, you can actually get yourself out of prison. Acknowledge that you need help and you can get it.
He finally went home. He went home about a year ago, actually.
But even before he was released on parole, that was one of my greatest victories, just because we were able to get him some resources, to give him some sense that he’s an okay person. That he’s a human being that can get help, that can get himself out of prison. That definitely ranks up there.
Logikcull: We’d like to thank Keith for talking to us today and everyone at UnCommon Law for the work that they do. For our listeners, if you'd like to hear more about UnCommon Law, you can visit their website at UnCommonLaw.org, that’s UnCommonLaw.org.
And, of course, to stay up with the latest legal, technology, and eDiscovery news, podcasts, and interviews like this, sign up for Logikcull’s blog at blog.logikcull.com. I’m Casey Sullivan and we hope to hear from you soon.