by BRAD ROLLINS
Terri LeClercq, a Texas State University alumna who became consumed with advocating for prison reform after her arrest during a protest in 1998, has penned an illustrated graphic novel intended to teach inmates how to effectively lodge complaints about their living conditions.
The 40-page novel, “Prison Grievances: When to Write, How to Write,” follows pro-bono attorney Mr. Dibs — an acronym for “Don’t Be Stupid” — as he dispenses no-nonsense legal advice to prison inmates while sidestepping shenanigans unleashed by a documentary filmmaker intent on inspiring eventful footage.
A scholar whose article, “The Doctrine of the Last Antecedent,” has been cited in multiple state supreme court cases, LeClercq decided to write a comic book with dialogue on a fifth-grade reading level because, “If prison inmates don’t know how to write about their problems, they can’t get help,” she said.
“When inmates write to our courts, administrators have to read boxes of complaints that are illegible or don’t even meet the guidelines. It’s a waste of the inmate’s appeal. It’s a waste of the court’s time. And it’s a waste of the taxpayer’s money,” she says in a YouTube video promoting the book as a potentially fundamental solution to substandard jails and prisons staffed by under-trained and over-worked guards.
She wants the book to be distributed in federal and state prisons beginning, perhaps, with its adoption by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Reducing the time spent by clerks and judges on illegible, incoherent and frivolous filings by inmates will result in significant savings for the judiciary and corrections systems. And it will help inmates with legitimate complaints get taken more seriously by those in a position to intervene.
Oddly reminiscent in drawing style and narrative convention of Jack Chick’s ubiquitous religious tracts that have proselytized tens of millions of people the world over, “Prison Grievances” is intended as a handbook for inmates to file formal grievances and court requests that conform to standards required by the Federal Prison Litigation Reform Act.
To be sure, “Prison Grievances” is a secular work but LeClercq approaches the subject of redressing abuse and neglect in U.S. prisons with a missionary’s fervency. Despite her ambition to help improve prisons on a national scale, the book is intended, on a more personal level, to “help these citizens get their essential medicine, get out of illegally crowded cells, get a wheelchair, get taken to the chow hall,” using Mr. Dibs as an intermediary.
Having earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Southwest Texas State University in 1968 and 1970, respectively, LeClercq joined the University of Texas English faculty after earning a doctorate in American Literature there. Seven years into her career as an academic, she was assigned to teach legal writing at the UT School of Law where she was one of the first professors to introduce humanities into the law school’s curriculum and where she wrote two widely used manuals on the mechanics of legal writing and research. She was named a Distinguished Alumna by Texas State in 1996.
In 1998, she was among two dozen people arrested during a protest after they entered the grounds of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., a Department of Defense institution accused, according to the New York Times, of training Latin American military officers to torture and murder. Some of her fellow protestors were sentenced to six months in federal prisons from which they wrote to LeClercq about inmates denied access to basic medication or punished with a diet of “green loaf,” an unsavory mix of vegetables and food scraps run through a blender to meet nutritional standards while tasting as disgusting as possible.
LeClercq began research on U.S. prison conditions with the intent of publishing an academic article in a law journal. She later decided to write something to help prison inmates help themselves. She has worked on the book for a decade along with illustrators Patrick Hubik, Shawn Van Briesen and Tim Doyle and contributor Greg Sorkin.
Retired from UT since 2009, LeClercq now has a new job: Peddling “Prison Grievances,” literally, one book at a time. On her website, she asks people to buy a copy of the $10 book via Amazon and send it to the law library in local jails and prisons.