Education program offers incarcerated the chance to earn law degree

A new education program will give a handful of Minnesota prison inmates the opportunity to earn a fully accredited law degree while behind bars.

It’s believed to be the only program of its kind in the nation and Mitchell Hamline School of Law, in partnership with All Square and its newly formed subsidiary, the Legal Revolution, is making it a reality.

“Just because we lock people up doesn’t mean we should not treat them humanely,” Mitchell Hamline law professor Brad Colbert told FOX 9.

Colbert, who already works with currently incarcerated and recently released clients through a pair of clinics is excited for this new program for his St. Paul institution.

The school is getting ready to welcome its very first fully enrolled juris doctor candidate from behind bars this fall. 

Her name is Maureen Onyelobi. and she has worked towards her J.D. entirely from the Department of Corrections women’s prison in Shakopee.

“This is an education. you know, it’s a piece of it. It’s like a GED or college education. This is a piece of that. It is treating people who are incarcerated like the people that they are,” she said.

Onyelobi is seen in a recent All Square Prison-to-pipeline video saying,”A lot of people don’t see me as a person. They see me as a criminal. For them to believe in me and give me opportunity to get education and help other people is amazing.” 

Onyelobi is currently serving life for her role in a 2014 drug-related shooting on the streets of Minneapolis.

The shooter took a plea deal and is scheduled to be released in 18 years.

Onyelobi went to trial on aiding and abetting first-degree murder charges and was given a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole when a jury found her guilty.

Her case is pending before the state Board of Pardons for possible commutation in December. Her attorneys argue at the very least, she should be given the same sentence as the admitted gunman.

Professor Colbert figures her perspective on the legal system will be fascinating for her fellow Mitchell Hamline classmates.

“One of the issues we talk about is what is accomplice liability? What does that mean and how does that define it? Minnesota has a really, I think, problematic statute. And we can talk about hers, here’s what it means. It is not just someone who is a lookout. It is much broader than that. And here’s someone who has been caught up in this particular statute,” Colbert said.

In the meantime, Paul Schnell, the Commissioner of Corrections says he supports giving qualified inmates this unique opportunity.

“I do think that these things to enhance and enrich the lives of people who are incarcerated, if for no other reason than the safety of these facilities, having people engaged in meaningful activity makes a huge difference,” commissioner Schnell said. “Number two, this is not a private-public partnership. The private side of this is providing the education. The public partnership side of this is that the Department of Corrections is simply supporting the facilitation of the program, which is really quite different. So at the end of the day, I think it does serve a public purpose, a beneficial purpose. And again, it doesn’t come at a cost to the taxpayers as such.”

As for Onyelobi, she is now lined up to join all the brick and mortar classes at Mitchell Hamline entirely via zoom from the prison. 

The school reports that tuition is coming from private fundraising and the same scholarship assistance available to all of its students. The law school has been granted a variance by the American Bar Association to admit two incarcerated students each academic year. They will get five years to complete their studies. 

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