Another group of incarcerated students, in a paralegal program in Minnesota, will be among the first to participate in legal education programs funded by restored federal financial aid.
North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota was selected as one of 73 new Second Chance Pell sites
for fall 2022. Access to Pell Grants will allow North Hennepin to fund a cohort of 20 incarcerated students in the college’s paralegal program, said Mary Fenske, paralegal program director.
The program began as a pilot with a cohort of 5 students, who will finish their 30-credit certificate in May 2023, at Shakopee and Stillwater state prisons. The 5 students are being privately funded by law firms in the Twin Cities.
Heather Horst is one of the students in the first cohort. She was interested in the paralegal program because she wants to help others understand the nuances of the legal system, such as disparities in sentencing for the same crime.
“Many women here don’t understand the law,” Horst said. “And if you’re going to hold somebody accountable for something, how can you do that if they don’t understand? I want people to be held accountable appropriately.”
The program is working with All Square, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis. All Square has also collaborated with Mitchell Hamline School of Law to create the Prison to Law Pipeline
Maureen Onyelobi, who is currently serving a life sentence at Shakopee, will start in Mitchell Hamline’s juris doctor program this fall. She is believed to be the first person to attend law school from behind bars.
The American Bar Association recently granted an exception to its regular requirements to allow Onyelobi to attend classes entirely online, which she will do from the Shakopee prison. Her tuition will be covered through private funds and the same scholarship assistance available to all Mitchell Hamline students. The association will allow Mitchell Hamline to admit up to two incarcerated students each academic year for five years.
Onyelobi took the LSAT for the second time in April, and didn’t know she had been accepted into the law school until she received a surprise visit at the prison from the law school dean Anthony Niedwiecki last week.
“I didn’t think I could get an advanced degree beyond a bachelor’s in any field,” she told Open Campus. “It’s so fitting that someone who’s actually been incarcerated and who could actually relate to what their clients are going through can actually earn a law degree.”