Federal Pro Se Clinic Launches Pilot Program for Colorado Prisoners

A modern looking courthouse with letters on the top that read “Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse.” The courthouse has glass on the front of the building and six light gray pillars in front. In front of the courthouse is a small courtyard with benches and wildflowers. To the right of the courthouse a woman walks towards the door and there’s a flagpole with the American flag.
A legal clinic for people representing themselves in Colorado’s federal court has plans to expand its reach to serve incarcerated litigants. / Photograph by Clara Geoghegan for Law Week Colorado.

A legal clinic for people representing themselves in Colorado’s federal court has plans to expand its reach to serve incarcerated litigants. 

Since 2018, the Federal Pro Se Clinic, based out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, has provided limited legal assistance to people representing themselves in federal court. The program, however, hasn’t been able to serve people incarcerated in Colorado who make up more than 25% of complaints on the court’s civil docket. In September, the Federal Pro Se Clinic will open a pilot program to connect incarcerated litigants with limited legal assistance from volunteer attorneys. Organizers hope that by extending those resources to Colorado prisons, they can relieve some pressures of Colorado’s high docket workload and help prisoners better represent themselves in court. 

“I think really the most important part is that this is the first direct attempt we’ve made to solve a problem, both for the prisoners and for the court, in moving these cases through the court in an efficient way,” explained Magistrate Judge Kristen Mix who helped start the Federal Pro Se Clinic and will serve as volunteer coordinator for the pilot program after she retires from the bench Aug. 5. 

The pilot program, set to run from Sept. 1 through Sept. 1, 2024, will be available to the inmates at the Fremont Correctional Facility which has a capacity of 1,621 inmates. Through the program, inmates representing themselves will fill out an application form online and attorneys with the Pro Se Clinic will review their cases to determine if they can help. If the clinic believes an attorney can help, inmates will be able to schedule an appointment and call their volunteer attorney through a dedicated phone number to receive limited legal advice. 

Colorado Department of Corrections spokesperson Annie Skinner told Law Week in an email Fremont was approached by a working group at the federal district court that was convened to discuss pro se inmate litigation. Skinner said Fremont was selected based on the volume of inmate litigation that comes out of the facility and the staff’s past experiences working on other legal access pilot programs the facility was a part of. 

In FY 2023, prisoners filed 880 complaints in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, comprising 26% of the 3,337 civil cases filed at the court in the time period.  

Mix explained most complaints from incarcerated litigants are brought under 42 U.S. Code Section 1983 which provides grounds under federal law for people to challenge the deprivation of someone’s civil rights. That means many complaints from both state and federally run prisons in Colorado end up in federal district court. According to the most recent data from the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 19,783 people are incarcerated in Colorado at both state and federal facilities. 

A large portion of the prisoner petitions are filed by the prisoners themselves who don’t usually have a background in the law and are trying to navigate the federal court system. While the Pro Se Clinic offers resources for people representing themselves in federal court, pro se litigants often still struggle to navigate the court system. 

Jeff Colwell, clerk of the district court, explained court staff can’t provide legal advice to pro se litigants. But the Pro Se Clinic, which is funded by the district court, run by the Colorado Bar Association and assisted by volunteer lawyers, is a resource the court can direct those litigants to. Colwell said the clinic can help litigants build a stronger case and also keeps cases out of court that don’t belong there, like cases that don’t have merit or cases when a court can’t help the litigant. 

“A lot of those cases don’t advance and may not have merit or may not even belong in our court, but still, a judge has to look at it [and] staff is working on it,” explained Colwell. “So it’s time, effort and money being spent on all of those cases.” Mix added since many complaints from prisoners are handwritten, processing those complaints and trying to decipher the arguments can add extra time to the court’s workload where resources are already spread thin.  

The U.S. Judicial Conference estimated between 2020-2021, Colorado’s federal judges had weighted caseloads of 598 filings each. The Colorado District Court has seven authorized federal judges. The last time an additional judge was added to the district court was in 1984. Since then, Colorado’s population has grown significantly. The 1980 U.S. Census recorded 2.88 million residents in the state and the 2020 census found 5.77 million. 

Alleviating that workload will require Congress to add more judges to the district court or streamlining litigation better, Mix said, which the pilot program hopes to do. 

“So really, this is the only other release valve there is to try to do something to streamline the way these cases can get handled through the court,” said Mix. 

Mix said she doesn’t know if opening resources of the Pro Se Clinic to incarcerated litigants will make a dent in the high caseloads of the Colorado federal court, but she plans to watch closely over the next year to see if it makes a difference. She said the Pro Se Clinic will be monitoring to see if inmates at Freemont use the program, if the clinic has enough volunteer lawyers to keep up with demand, if CDOC is interested in keeping the program and if it has an impact on the federal judiciary’s workload. 

“We’ve called it a pilot program for good reason. Because we don’t know whether it will work or not. But it’s a step in that direction. And we’re hoping that it does work. And we’re hoping that if there are wrinkles, we can iron those out,” said Mix. If the program does work, Mix said the clinic will see if CDOC is interested in expanding it to other facilities. 

A public comment period is currently open on the program and is set to close Aug. 7. Attorneys interested in volunteering with the program can leave a message at the Federal Pro Se Clinic’s phone number. 

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