The Prisoners' Legal Education and Advocacy Project

By Christopher Zoukis

A major pro bono initiative of Penn Law, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the Prisoners' Legal Education and Advocacy Project (PEAP) has various components that include educational outreach for prisoners.  With a curriculum developed by Penn Law professors, teams of law students actually prepare and deliver individual class lessons and deliver them to the student prisoners.  The mission of the program is meant to instill empowerment among prison populations as well as to advocate for the prisoners by better understanding their issues and needs.  The program is also meant to instill better understanding of prisoner issues among Penn Law's legal students.

The Prisoners' Legal Education Program   Image courtesy https://www.law.upenn.edu/probonoprojects/plea/

PEAP is one of those rare in-prison projects that is as important for the prisoners that receive instruction as it is for the instructors themselves.  The law students that participate in the program are grouped and led by an upperclassman.  Team members develop lesson plans and are, of course, under the guidance of professors, but the teaching experience is meant to provide Penn Law students with insight about "how the criminal justice system treats those charged with crime.”  Teaching also helps the students understand the material better themselves as they work with student-prisoners. 

This mutually beneficial program makes it unusual among educational prison programs.  Also, the education component deals with legal issues and topics which also sets it apart from more typical prison educational initiatives.  Topics are varied as are individual lessons.  While PEAP professors or student instructors are prohibited from providing specific legal advice, many of the lessons do deal with legal recourse and legal issues that affect prisoners.  The provided information, in a general sense, is designed to be helpful to the student prisoners.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project

The PEAP umbrella has various project aspects including the Innocence Project.  This initiative combines both lawyers and law students that work in tandem to employ DNA testing in order to help exonerate those inmates that have been wrongfully convicted.  Their overall work has a mission to help "reform the criminal justice system."  Unlike the legal education program which provides more general legal information, the Innocence Project deals with specific cases--all on a pro bono basis.

Other Aspects of the Program

While the program's site is not effusive about the specific nature of presented lessons for prisoners, one example is the current programming designed for the Riverside Correctional Facility for women.  Instruction will center upon legal issues applicable to this population as well as re-entry issues.  There are also some post-prison programs associated with PEAP.  One program is called the Pardon Me program; former prisoners meet once a month to gain assistance with their pardon applications.  Another aspect of PEAP is the Ex-Offenders for Community Empowerment (XCE) that is trying to reduce recidivism by addressing issues that affect the family as well as the community at large. 

Unlike many in-prison education programs that cover general academic topics, PEAP is designed around law education.  Many prisoners do feel empowered once they take coursework.  Although this educational programming is not degree-track, it does have practical applications for prisoners while they are in prison as well as once they re-enter their communities.