SIX YEARS AGO, Professor Sarah Rogerson and a group of law students requested a meeting with Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple to propose a somewhat radical idea: to go into the Albany County Correctional Facility and provide free legal counseling to detained immigrants and their families.
“I was chuckling because Sarah was all defensive and ready to sell their case to me,” Apple recalled. “But right away I said, ‘Let’s do it!’ and she wasn’t ready for that response.”
Rogerson admitted they were expecting the meeting at the jail to be fairly adversarial. “When we explained our idea and the sheriff responded, ‘Well, that’s a no-brainer,’ I think my jaw fell to the floor. The conversation turned out to be very collaborative and all about making a difference.”
Rogerson, director of The Justice Center’s Immigration Law Clinic, credited Chris Scoville ’14 and Kristin Rogers ’14 with bringing the issue of immigrant detainees in the local jail to her attention. In some cases, children were being sent to foster care simply because nobody knew their parents were in detention. The team utilized the legal system and the Parental Interest Directive to prevent families from being separated and provided basic guidance on how to stay in the United States legally.
Albany Law School and the Sheriff’s Office have been working together—and coming up with forward-thinking ways to make a difference in the correctional system and the community at large—ever since.
THAT PROGRAM MORPHED INTO AN INTAKE AND REFERRAL SERVICE FOR DETAINEES, called the Detention Outreach Project, to triage their needs and then connect them with the right types of help. When law students left for the summer or the jail got an influx of detainees, community partners like The Legal Project would help. One year a group of 40 women arrived at once, so Rogerson and her students worked with New York City’s Sanctuary for Families to interview them all.
“It turned out to be good practice for the flood of refugees we would see in 2018,” said Rogerson. The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border enforcement policy resulted in a sharp rise in detainees. “Essentially the southern border was brought to Albany.” Apple was asked by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house detained migrants in his jail. Around 300 individuals—about double what he anticipated—were sent to Albany that June. “I took so many because I knew we had a team willing to come in and fight to help these people stay here legally. My whole purpose was to provide them with legal counseling, medical care, and communication with their families, and we made all of that happen.” He credited Rogerson and her law students—who partnered with the New York Immigration Coalition and The Legal Project—with making it possible.
The detainees were from many different countries and backgrounds and spoke many languages. Most had not even had their credible fear interview, the first step in an asylum claim. “It was an intense learning experience for our students to be involved in that,” Rogerson said. Julina Guo, staff attorney for the Immigration Law Clinic, mentored and helped supervise the students. They worked through interpreters and prepared many detainees for their credible fear interviews. Their success rate was over 90%, significantly higher than the 2018 national rate of 76%.
One year later, the vast majority of those 300 individuals were no longer in detention. “That’s something pretty incredible that we accomplished together,” Rogerson said.
But there was more to do. Apple and the Detention Outreach Project petitioned the Albany County Legislature to repurpose part of the money that it received from the federal government for housing detainees. They secured $170,000 to fund ongoing civil legal services, the first county-level investment of its kind in New York State.
THAT TYPE OF INVESTMENT IS CONTINUING. A manual of resources and guidance for inmates reentering the community was created, which grew into a program providing holistic services to inmates, which led to the creation of a salaried position for a director of the reentry preparedness program. Behind all three is dual degree graduate Elena Kilcullen ’19, who also earned a Master of Social Work from the University at Albany.
During an internship with Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, her supervisor—staff attorney and pro bono director Samantha Howell ’10—suggested she work on providing resources for reentry.
Kilcullen spent a year creating a manual for inmates transitioning back into their communities in Albany, Schenectady, and Rensselaer counties. When she reached out to Apple about making it available in the jail, he not only agreed, he brainstormed with her on how to help inmates prepare for release and reduce their likelihood to recidivate, or return to jail.
A 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics study revealed a recidivism rate of 68% within three years of release. “Statistics show that people are less likely to recidivate if they work on their plans for reentry during their incarceration, not once they’re out,” said Kilcullen, who created the New Beginnings program and began interviewing inmates upon intake about their plans for when they get out. “We ask whether they have transportation and a place to live, if they are struggling with substance abuse or addiction, what brought them here, and what they need to do so they don’t come back. That’s the start of the New Beginnings service provision. There are programs in the jail they can start, and they can ask for their case worker if they want to ask questions, access the reentry manual, or contact services on the outside.”
The average stay in Albany’s county jail is 31 days—not a lot of time to make arrangements for successful reentry into the community—and release dates often change, which poses logistical challenges. “It takes a lot of time to establish solid resources for somebody,” Kilcullen said. “Ultimately we want them to be able to support themselves and make that sustainable change.”
The manual, which is being loaded on tablets, helps inmates find out where they can go for help getting food, housing, addiction services, mental health counseling, job assistance, and more. Kilcullen is also working to make sure it is available post-incarceration at legal and social welfare organizations and even public libraries. “The program has already made a huge difference by changing lives for a lot of people,” Apple said. He hired Kilcullen to continue running the program from the jail.
“Now I know what I can do as a service provider, and I look forward to doing that,” Kilcullen said. “Next I want to explore what I can do as an attorney as far as being an advocate, providing legal counsel, and creating policy.”
SOMETIMES, PROJECTS FOR THE UNIQUE “LAW AND ORDER” PARTNERSHIP of Albany Law School and the Sheriff’s Office arise without warning. While delivering a ton—literally—of food to the Capital City Rescue Mission, Apple learned that its chef, Kinimo Ngoran, had been detained by ICE.
Apple called Rogerson, who met with Ngoran’s wife that same day and then called in reinforcements for what she knew would be a massive undertaking. The team included six Albany Law students. “Cases in which someone is unexpectedly taken into custody happen all the time, unfortunately,” Rogerson said. “Kinimo’s case was unique in terms of community intervention,” thanks in part to Apple posting about it on social media and the story quickly going viral. “Ultimately, Sheriff Apple’s report of his conversation with ICE, in which they said they were going to deport Ngoran immediately, proved to be the linchpin of our legal case,” Rogerson recalled. They secured Ngoran’s release from a detention center—where he was held for six weeks—and a temporary stay of removal until a decision is made on his application for permanent residency.
APPLE, A POLICE OFFICER FOR 33 YEARS, had yet another idea for how the law school and police could work together for better outcomes. He proposed having law professors teach all law-related content at the Albany County Sheriff’s Public Safety Institute.
“The idea is to professionalize police academy teachings,” Apple said. “It’s a new model that has never been done before.” He talked with Associate Dean Connie Mayer, director of The Justice Center, about providing professors and adjuncts to teach classes such as penal law and courtroom demeanor and testimony—some at the law school—starting this fall. “Right now, the academy is a quasi-military environment. We want to change that, so that when recruits come out, they are well-prepared for community policing.”
APPLE HAS ALSO BEEN TALKING TO THE LAW SCHOOL about helping with another of his “never-been-done-before” ideas: to provide homeless housing in an unoccupied wing of the jail. He decommissioned 100 cells and transformed them into rooms, each with a private bathroom as well as basic furniture and outlets for a TV or mini fridge. “When you restore dignity to a person and give them a sense of ownership, good things come from that,” he said.
The Homeless Project is a natural offshoot of the New Beginnings program, Apple said. The hope is that law students can sit down with the residents to find out their needs and help connect them with the right kinds of help, which will get them on a path to good physical and mental health, proper identification, employment, and ultimately affordable, sustainable housing.
SHERIFF APPLE OCCASIONALLY COMES TO ALBANY LAW SCHOOL to speak to students about “not being afraid to step up.” He points to the non-traditional partnership between the law school and the Sheriff’s Office as an example of what is possible. “We’ve been able to knock down barriers and create programs that are literally changing lives in our county and beyond—and that’s what we’re all supposed to do, I think, aren’t we?"