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Against the Odds, Sidley Teams Bring Hope to At-Risk Prisoners During Pandemic


Sidley’s long-standing pro bono advocacy has meant the difference between life and death for many at-risk clients, including individuals in the U.S. prison system. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a serious threat to this underrepresented population, many of whom suffer from preexisting health conditions and lack the ability to practice social distancing. In an effort to secure early release for as many medically vulnerable prisoners as possible, Sidley helped launch the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse COVID-19 Project, a national undertaking in collaboration with advocacy organizations FAMM, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

“This project required an astonishing amount of work from lawyers and staff across the firm under the leadership of pro bono counsel Mark Herzog, who dedicated long hours to it,” said senior counsel Jim Arden.

As the pandemic spread, a cross-office Sidley team of 140 lawyers, paralegals, summer associates, and secretaries worked together, albeit remotely, to help FAMM process the influx of compassionate release applications. FAMM determined that as of December 2020, Sidley had screened over 5,500 applications for compassionate release nationwide and helped place nearly 2,000 cases with federal public defenders and pro bono counsel, leading to more than 1,000 motions for compassionate release and the freedom of 176 individuals.

“This would simply not be possible without your commitment, enthusiasm, and leadership,” said Mary Price, General Counsel at FAMM. “Thank you with all my heart for being such outstanding partners and colleagues of the first order.”

Maritza Garcia, a paralegal with Sidley’s Litigation group, helped spearhead the screening process, ensuring that none of the applications fell through the cracks. The unprecedented nature of the situation required the team to be agile and resourceful, Garcia said. “We quickly realized that some applicants were in a much more unfortunate situation than others, so we revised our review procedures to tier them out,” she said.

Sidley’s lawyers filed more than 25 applications in federal court that secured the release of prisoners from facilities across multiple states. One Sidley team represented an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) in Cumberland, Maryland who suffered from chronic asthma and was at a high risk of severe illness or death if he had contracted COVID-19. Arrested for a nonviolent crime committed in his 20s, he focused on earning his GED while serving his 20-year sentence. Facilitating his release was a tremendous relief for all involved, said Litigation associate Heidi Savabi. “Ruben was grateful to be out of harm’s way and to be able to finally live with his partner for the first time in many years,” she shared.

Mallika Balachandran, an associate with the Litigation group who worked with the same client, added: “Ruben put a lot of effort into his case himself — collecting important information, organizing the facts, and writing very persuasive letters not only to us, but to the judge directly.”

Sidley’s Clearinghouse Project teams also succeeded in obtaining the release of two vulnerable inmates at FCI Elkton in Ohio, which experienced one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S. prison system during the summer of 2020, and on behalf of a defendant incarcerated at Greenville FCI in Illinois who was battling cancer, as well as diabetes and obesity.

“It was evident from all of the families that we spoke with throughout the process that they are used to being overlooked by the system,” said former associate Isaac Wall who represented a client at Greenville. “It was very fulfilling to help people who had lost all hope.”

Sidley’s COVID-19 litigation work has resulted in victories on behalf of prisoners around the country, as well as vulnerable individuals held in custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). To read more about compassionate release cases that Sidley teams have handled in collaboration with other legal services organizations, please visit the COVID-19 and Political Asylum and Immigrants’ Rights Project pages of the Pro Bono Highlights microsite.