2012 Spring/Summer Meeting
Tribute to Leslie Walker
Remarks of Patricia Garin Leslie Walker has 23,500 clients. That’s because she is the Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services and because in Massachusetts, there are 23,500 incarcerated people who suffer daily from the severe overcrowding, the poor medical and mental health care, the guard brutality, and the myriad of other unconstitutional conditions and dehumanizing procedures we subject our prisoners to on a daily basis in this state.
But Leslie, along with the amazing staff at PLS, provides hope, respect and unparalleled services to 23,500 people. How does Leslie do this with such a small staff and so little money? Well, Leslie has some remarkable skills.
First, there is her leadership. Under Leslie’s leadership for the past eleven years, PLS’s accomplishments are many. A few examples are: 1) PLS set up a Rapid Response to Brutality system whereby an attorney responds immediately to the prison upon a report of an incident of guard brutality; 2) they have successfully challenged the Bristol County Sheriff’s pay-to-stay system of charging prisoners $5.00 a day for staying at the glorious house of corrections; 3) they have filed lawsuits challenging overcrowding, no toilets, and other inhumane conditions; 4) they have helped an untold number of prisoners obtain much needed medical services and mental health services; 5) they are now litigating the outrageously excessive telephone rates charged to prisoners’ families and lawyers. In the world of lawyers, PLS staff members don’t make much money. But to a person, and they will tell you that Leslie is the reason that they stay at PLS and perform this back-breaking and oftentimes spirit-breaking hard work. Her leadership in identifying the cases, staffing the cases, listening to the staff and prisoners, and respecting everyone’s position makes employment at PLS a coveted position.
Then there are Leslie’s keen political instincts. She has built strong relationships with leaders in the State Senate, the House and the Governor’s Office. Recently, when settlement negotiations in a complex lawsuit challenging DOC’s failure to provide mental health services reached an impasse, with the DOC saying they would no longer negotiate, Leslie called the Governor’s Chief of Staff and suddenly DOC was back at the table - the result being a settlement that requires DOC to provide treatment instead of solitary confinement to prisoners with serious mental illness.
Then there is her ability to be one-part advocate, one-part lobbyist and one-part organizer. She, more than anyone else in this state, is responsible for preventing the Three Strikes legislation from sailing through the legislature as it was poised to do last fall. She mobilized community opposition and has been a relentless presence in the State House and in the media, churning out a barrage of fact sheets to counter every point made by supporters of this misguided legislation.
Then there is Leslie’s media savvy and credibility with the press. She has given prisoners a real voice. Before Leslie, prison stories were almost exclusively about how prisoners are coddled and how their treatment should become tougher and meaner. When prisoner John Geoghan was killed and DOC was ready to do a typical half-baked investigation and change nothing, Leslie jumped all over the story and gave Governor Romney little choice but to recognize that the DOC was infected with profound systemic problems in all facets of its operation - including, as Leslie pointed out to the Romney administration, indifference to brutality, kangaroo disciplinary hearings, and an arbitrary classification system that placed far too many prisoners in maximum security where there was little or no rehabilitation. Leslie was a big part of that investigation.
Finally, there is Leslie’s passion for her clients. She began her career as an attorney at CPCS where she worked on behalf of indigent clients for sixteen years. When she came to PLS eleven years ago, she brought with her a drive to better the lives of incarcerated persons, and to treat them with respect, kindness, dignity and humanity while doing so. Leslie’s care for her clients runs deep. She often remembers to drop in on them on their birthdays. She has taken her son Sam along on visits so that her clients can feel real human emotion and kindness, and laugh with someone who is not a lawyer or a guard. Leslie’s clients will tell you that they know that wining a prisoners’ rights case is a very tough thing to do, but to them, the real win sometimes, the real triumph often, is feeling the respect, the concern, the kindness and the passion of Leslie and her staff.
I am so proud to present Leslie Walker with MACDL’s Gideon Award.