|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2012|
|Katina Saint Marie (left), general counsel of The Portia Project, shares a passion for the rights of women prisoners with Barbara Bader Aldave (right), the program's founder and president.|
Katina Saint Marie was a second-year law student at the University of Oregon in 2005 when she met an invaluable mentor in an unlikely setting: prison.
Saint Marie had determined that she wanted to specialize in family law so she could help victims of domestic violence. She was on a tour of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility when she met Barbara Bader Aldave, a U.O. law professor who in 2002 established a nonprofit called The Portia Project.
The Eugene-based organization provides legal services for incarcerated women, with a big focus on helping female prisoners obtain parenting time with their young children. Each year, The Portia Project helps about 300 Oregonians who are mostly mothers and mothers-to-be, grandmothers and infants or young children.
Aldave, The Portia Project’s president, and Saint Marie, its general counsel, recently discussed the paths that led them to the law and, specifically, the fight for the rights of women prisoners.
Aldave Carves Path Through Boys’ Club
As a girl growing up in Puyallup, Wash., Aldave developed a passion for math and science. By high school, she was a state debating champion and had already developed an interest in the law as well.
“My four teammates on the debate team were all male and they wanted to go to law school. I thought that sounded pretty good, too,” she says. “Unfortunately, I confided my ambition to my guidance counselor, and he told me girls couldn’t be lawyers.”
It was the 1950s and few women were in law school. The space race between the U.S. and Russia did bode well for girls who were good at math and science, however. Aldave won a National Merit Scholarship to attend Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1960.
After graduating, Aldave worked as a library assistant for the patent attorneys at a Bay Area subsidiary of Shell Oil Company. The thought of being a lawyer was never far from her mind; three years later she enrolled as a law student at the University of California at Berkeley and graduated in 1966.
Aldave practiced for several years before joining the U.O. law school as a professor in 1970. She went on to teach law at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas, Northeastern University, Boston College and Cornell University. From 1989 through 1998, she served as the dean of St. Mary’s University Law School in San Antonio, Texas.
Over the years, Aldave’s teachings have centered around business associations, securities regulation and constitutional law. She has authored several articles about securities fraud and insider trading, and has testified in scores of cases involving claims by or against business entities and nonprofit organizations.
In 2000, Aldave returned to the U.O., where she now holds the Loran L. Stewart Chair in Corporate Law and directs the Center for Law and Entrepreneurship. A lifetime member of the American Bar Foundation and the Federacion Interamericana de Abogados, Aldave says her career has given her the best of all worlds.
“I’m really lucky to have had the opportunity to experience different kinds of work,” she says. “What I enjoy most about my work of all kinds is the chance to do something that is worthwhile.”
Clear proof of that is the thousands of families helped by The Portia Project over the last decade. Aldave founded the organization after learning about the plight of female prisoners while providing pro bono representation for Sherryl Snodgrass, who was convicted of murder in Iowa and sentenced to life in prison. Snodgrass sued for the right to a parole hearing, which the state of Iowa denies for those serving life sentences.
“I was hoping to have a big constitutional victory before the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was through her that I became aware of the problems of women at Coffee Creek,” Aldave says.
Saint Marie Finds Long-sought Advocacy Role
As a legal secretary for several years, Saint Marie quickly realized that there were many people who couldn’t afford legal services. She went to the U.O.’s law school with the intention of becoming a family law attorney, working with domestic violence survivors who needed an affordable advocate.
When she met Aldave during the 2005 prison tour, Saint Marie realized the organization offered an opportunity to volunteer and gain experience in what would become her practice specialty. She also recognized the steep learning curve that came along with it.
“A prison official who is now with the Oregon Youth Authority was telling me about how women inmates were losing their parental rights left and right, and they really had no one to advocate for them,” she says. “It was this new issue that I had never thought about, and all of the sudden I wanted to help them.”
Saint Marie graduated from law school in 2007 and signed on as The Portia Project’s executive director and general counsel. Last fall, the organization received a $22,500 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust to hire a new executive director, freeing Saint Marie up to focus strictly on her role as general counsel.
Along with representing women who are seeking parenting time with their young children, Saint Marie leads classes at Coffee Creek that help inmates address family-law-related problems. While it’s rewarding to achieve positive results for people who cannot advocate for themselves, there are myriad challenges as well, she says.
For starters, not all judges share the belief that incarcerated parents should have contact with their children, Saint Marie notes. And basic logistics can derail a visitation plan. Among the more common considerations is who will transport an inmate’s children to the prison or pay for gas if it’s a long drive. The weather can complicate everything from a drive to the prison to the wait in a long line during visiting hours.
“The biggest thing I fight against is society’s attitude about the women in prison,” Saint Marie says. “I have represented women who went back to prison because they didn’t succeed when they got out. We were all betting on them, and it’s disappointing when it doesn’t work out. But you just don’t know what’s going to happen and what kind of challenges they are going to face when they get out.”
And yet, many do make it. Saint Marie recalls an inmate whose estranged husband took custody of their young son, despite never having been a part of the boy’s life up to that point. The boy already was being cared for by the inmate’s family, so the inmate figured her former husband initiated the custody dispute to punish her more than to develop a relationship with the child.
Saint Marie says the inmate took part in a parenting class offered at Coffee Creek, and sought counseling for anger that was rooted in the abuse she had suffered from the boy’s father. With Saint Marie’s help, she regained custody of her son when she was released.
“It was wonderful to hear from her and she was a success story because she had truly changed. That really touched me and gave me a lot of motivation,” Saint Marie says. “The court did the right thing, the mom did the right thing and sometimes it all comes together like that.”
Aldave agrees such success stories are the ultimate reward for founding The Portia Project, which also seeks to educate the public about the consequences of incarceration.
According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, the number of women who went to prison over the last 25 years far outpaced the number of men. While men still make up the bulk of the nation’s prison population, the number of women inmates skyrocketed during the 1980s and ’90s in several states, including Oregon.
A study by the institute found that the majority of women were imprisoned for drug-related offenses, came from families where a relative had spent time in prison, were survivors of physical or sexual abuse and were unmarried mothers. More than 70 percent of women in prison have children, and more than half of them cannot visit with their kids while they are behind bars.
The institute’s study also estimates that more than 80 percent of mothers in prison plan to reunify with their families upon their release, but accomplishing that goal is often very difficult. A lack of job skills and record of past employment are just a couple of strikes against female prisoners when they are released.
“Almost all of these women have been through some kind of physical abuse. Very few of these women need punishment and almost all of them need help,” Aldave says.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2012 Melody Finnemore