Though the court doesn’t go out of its way to make access harder for those incarcerated, it does relatively little to make it easier. Most logistical difficulties stem from prisoners having no other recourse when they’re unable to pay court fees or comply with other rigid requirements.
The consequences of all this can be significant. For inmates who will eventually return to their communities—as an estimated 95 percent of state prisoners do after release—settling domestic matters like divorce, guardianship, or visitation rights with young children won’t help them leave prison any sooner, but it can dramatically affect their lives after release.
Mansfield described one of the more common scenarios: A mother imprisoned for a non-violent offense is married to an abusive spouse, and their kids are put in state custody in her absence. “The state can argue that if the mother didn’t leave the father, she can be held accountable [for his potential abuse]—even if she’s done everything in her power to protect the child,” Mansfield said. It helps women’s custody cases “a great deal” once they leave prison if they can “prove that they’re not going back to their partner. It proves to the court she’s making changes in her life.”
Even when children aren’t in the picture, getting a divorce while in prison can represent an important step toward personal freedom. That’s particularly true if, like 75 percent of incarcerated women, an inmate has experienced some form of domestic violence. “Anyone who says divorce isn’t the happiest day of someone’s life should come to the litigants call,” Mansfield said.
One previous litigant told me that her divorce allowed her to start over. “I can break the mental hold he had on me,” the woman said, in a message that came through CGLA. “My marriage was very abusive, with mental, physical, broken bones, and bruises. [The call] was a start for me to be independent now and when I get out of prison.”
The call gives litigants a chance to be heard in the courtroom, but it’s the video component that really makes their presence tangible—which can tip the scales in their favor.
“People have preconceived ideas about incarcerated people,” said Harriette Davis, a family-unity coordinator with the California-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “Seeing things—like maybe how strongly a child resembles her parent—can humanize them before a judge. It can also give women a chance to speak up and [inform a judge] that they’ve [participated in Alcoholics Anonymous] or counseling.”
Attorneys who have participated in Dickler’s call say they have seen anecdotally how a litigant’s virtual TV presence can have more weight than a written statement. When I was in Dickler’s courtroom, I observed the proceedings of an ongoing child-visitation case. The mother, who is in a downstate prison, wanted to establish more contact between her father and her child. Her child’s father, who has sole custody, opposed the idea; during the hearing, he and his attorney alluded to her prior substance abuse in an attempt to discredit her and distance the child from the mother’s family.