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Colleen Manwell 

Advocating for the Mentally Ill in the Criminal Justice System


MLaw Alumna's Equal Justice Works Fellowship Takes Her to the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem

By Lori Atherton

Colleen Manwell, '12, had no interest in becoming a lawyer, a fact she referenced in her Michigan Law application. Working with mentally ill prisoners as an undergrad, however, proved to be a defining experience for Manwell, one that set her on a path toward law school and a graduate fellowship with Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS).

Manwell, a University of Michigan graduate who majored in English, spent three years with U-M's Prison Creative Arts Project, facilitating improvisational theater workshops in Michigan prisons. Her longest-running workshop was in the mental illness unit of a men's facility, where, Manwell said, the prisoners were heavily medicated and received counseling within the confines of metal cages.

"I became aware that I had seen a group of people that was hard to think about, or be obligated to think about," Manwell said. "Once I felt obligated to that group, it became clear to me that I wanted to advocate for mentally ill people who had come in contact with the criminal justice system. With that interest, I came to law school."

Manwell worked for NDS the summer before her 2L year, which prompted her to apply for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship to work at NDS following graduation. The two-year fellowship, which is sponsored by Kirkland & Ellis LLP, will begin Sept. 4.

"NDS provides public representation for indigent clients in Harlem," said Manwell, a Saginaw, Michigan, native. "I will be focusing on clients who have mental illnesses and, at the same time, an active criminal case. We have three times as many people with psychiatric disabilities in prisons as we do in hospitals. A lot of people with mental illnesses are filtered through the criminal justice system, not always for the worst crimes. They simply have trouble in their day-to-day lives and commit crimes that seem irrational to a lot of us."

In addition to providing legal representation to her clients, Manwell will be helping them resolve potential issues stemming from their criminal charges, such as loss of housing, employment, and public benefits, as well as identifying the underlying causes of the criminal problem to prevent recidivism. She'll also be doing outreach at schools, churches, and other venues in Harlem to educate the community, particularly parents, on the importance of early diagnosis of mental illness and to "decrease the stigma" surrounding the disease.

Although Manwell had never intended to pursue a law degree—despite her father being a lawyer, she had envisioned a career in publishing or theater production—she made the most of her time at Michigan Law. She befriended other like-minded peers interested in public-interest work, was active in the American Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners' Rights Organization of Students, and took classes focused on cross-cultural lawyering.

She also participated in the Juvenile Justice and Federal Appellate Litigation clinics, which she credits with giving her valuable client experience. "Both clinics provided me with the experience of being in charge of a client's case, and that's what I'm going to be doing now," she said. "Without my clinic experiences, it would have been hard to secure the Equal Justice Works fellowship I received."

Equally helpful, Manwell said, was the feedback she was given from Public Interest Director Alyson Robbins, who helped her prep for her interview with Kirkland & Ellis, her sponsoring organization. "Alyson was so supportive and honest with me about how I was presenting myself, and I think I did an amazing interview because of it."

Manwell said she couldn't be happier that she came to Michigan Law and is looking forward to putting her passion for helping the mentally ill to good use at NDS. "These are the people I feel most connected to," she said, "and who I really feel I need to help."

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