This past fall, NIU law students began gaining valuable real-world experience representing prisoners in federal court. The NIU College of Law and the P. Michael Mahoney (Rockford, IL) Chapter of the Federal Bar Association announced their partnership and launch of the Prisoners’ Rights Program during a special ceremony at the Stanley J. Rozkowski U.S. Courthouse. The event was attended by Chief Judge Ruben Castillo and Magistrate Judge Iain Johnston from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Members of the P. Mahoney (Rockford, Illinois) Federal Bar Association present a check for $10,000 for the Prisoners’ Rights Program to the Northern Illinois University College of Law.

“Today is a win-win situation,” commented Chief Judge Castillo. “It’s a win for the court, for prisoners who are going to be bringing cases before the court, for the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and for the law school of Northern Illinois University because those law students are going to get a unique opportunity to represent clients.”

The Prisoners’ Rights Program is a hybrid between a clinic program and an externship. Students will be supervised by adjunct professor and Rockford attorney Lisa Jensen and handle cases involving allegations of civil rights violations. The students will have the cases from the beginning, including filing court papers, interviewing the client and witnesses, and drafting interrogatories. Ultimately, the students will try a federal civil case in front of a jury — which makes this program unique.

Rockford native Alonte’ Holliday is one of six third-year law students who is participating in the inaugural program. His experiences during law school along with his passion to be a public defender, led to his decision to apply for the program. “There are a lot of people, especially those that are incarcerated, who don’t know where to turn. I want them to know that they are still human beings that deserve to have someone in their corner fighting for their basic human rights,” Holliday remarked.

Interim Dean Mark Cordes, Associate Dean Marc Falkoff and alumnus Rene Hernandez, ‘90, all played pivotal roles in developing the program, which helps relieve the over-burdened docket with regard to prisoner litigation, gets law students the experience of trying cases and provides community outreach.

The Prisoners’ Rights Program adds to the list of incredible experiential learning opportunities offered by the College of Law for its students. The Civil Justice Clinic and Criminal Defense Clinic, also located in Rockford, Illinois, along with the Health Advocacy Clinic in Aurora, Illinois are all a part of the law school’s history of public service and mission to provide hands-on experience for students to advocate on behalf of real clients.