Orleans Public Defender and VISTA Responds to COVID-19

You are here

Release Date: 
Friday, April 17, 2020

Through the pandemic, VISTA members across the country continue to serve and build capacity for their communities. Today, we’re featuring the work of Wan Qi, Coulter, and the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) in addressing the needs of some of our most vulnerable neighbors - those who are incarcerated or recently released from incarceration. Continue reading to see how OPD is trying to reduce the jail population and flatten the curve. 

A small team of staff, including both VISTA members at OPD – Max, Grace, Marie, Mick, Coulter, and Wan Qi – came together to start a CSD emergency relief project. This project is essentially a grassroots fundraising effort that involves each team member individually fundraising into a larger fund on behalf of released clients. The team  developed boilerplate language for everyone in the OPD Client Services Department to use in fundraising, and created strategies to manage the logistics regarding the transfer of funds.

The team at OPD agreed that each client would be allocated $100 in cash or goods, depending on their situation. They felt it was important that clients maintain their self-determination to choose the items they needed most, but thought that providing $100 worth of goods would be more beneficial for home-bound clients who cannot grocery shop or pick up their own prescriptions, as well as for recovering clients who may be tempted to fall back into substance abuse if they have the financial opportunity to do so. They then developed a method for measuring client vulnerability, giving different weight to different questions, such as whether a client is unemployed, elderly, has a respiratory health issue, does or does not receive government aid, etc. These questions were cumulatively scored so that the OPD team could prioritize which clients receive funds first. Each client advocate staff would submit a Google Form on behalf of each client, which would populate into a spreadsheet that measured this client vulnerability score.

Currently, the main task for the OPD team is to continue fundraising and to maintain the project by keeping a diligent record of receipts for funds and goods distributed, coordinating the distribution for each client that passes through our project, and looking into possible partner/sponsor organizations to secure in-kind donations.

To date the OPD team has raised over $10,000 for their CSD emergency relief fund. They’ve been able to provide assistance to every client submitted by a client advocate staff member, as well as pass funds to the attorneys in the office to provide assistance to clients who have public defenders but do not have a client advocate or social workers assigned to them. OPD is currently hoping to provide a second round of assistance, distributing an additional $100 to clients who have already received funds, as they’ll likely need another round of groceries after two weeks or so. OPD Is also expecting a major in-kind donation in the next several weeks of 6,000 bars of soap for both their clients in jail and their out-of-custody clients. OPD’s long-term goal after the COVID-19 crisis passes is to have a robust small-favors fund to support clients with bus passes, job interview clothes, IDs, deodorant, etc.

In addition to the immediate needs relief fund, OPD is also working to get local churches and faith leaders involved in their campaign to advocate for all incarcerated people during the COVID-19 crisis.

To initiate this project, Wan Qi, reached out to all the faith leaders that OPD had any history of positive contact with. She also attended local faith-based community meetings to educate attendees on the campaign and to strengthen OPD’s relationships in those arenas. In the coming weeks, Wan Qi plans to connect several additional faith leaders to those meetings to help connect their faith and justice work more robustly. She will also begin making initial asks for faith leaders to signal-boost OPD’s campaign to their congregations and will begin outreach to  faith leaders that OPD does not have relationships with to begin and maintain a long-term partnership. 

So far, the campaign is in far too early a stage to document results. OPD will not exactly know the effects of having church congregations join in our campaign re: COVID-19, but getting these stakeholders involved may have significant longer term impact – churches feeling further emboldened to take action around issues they care about, and a long-term strengthening of our faith outreach as an office which may serve to pressure political reform driven by the how many people in the voting constituency that support criminal justice reform.