NHCC Paralegal Program Helps Inmates Overcome ‘Darkest Moment’
Nearly 4,700 students attend North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park. About 120 are enrolled in the paralegal program.
“We have a very diverse set of students,” said Shawn Woodbury, an attorney who also serves as one the paralegal instructors. He teaches classes related to litigation, criminal law and family law, among others.
“Thankfully there’s a lot of work in the industry,” Woodbury said. “There’s a lot of things to do, and there are a lot of different sorts of environments that our students can find something, hopefully, that fits what they’re looking for.”
Heather Horst was one of Woodbury’s paralegal students.
“I learned how to write legal memos, both internal and external, and I learned how to do legal research, how to brief cases,” she said.
Horst was part of a small group of students to graduate from the paralegal program this past May. But to call her group “non-traditional” would be putting it lightly.
“Well, I can say I have been here almost a decade on a murder conviction,” she said.
Paralegal classes in prison
Horst is an inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee. She was part of an inaugural, five-person cohort of incarcerated students who spent two years taking paralegal classes within the prison walls.
“All five graduated, so we’re batting 1.000,” said Kristen O’Connell, education director at the Shakopee prison.
O’Connell says this is the first, American Bar Association-approved paralegal program offered to incarcerated individuals in the entire nation.
“The majority of these individuals are going to be released into our communities, and I would rather have a highly skilled educated individual living next to me than someone that’s likely to repeat an offense,” O’Connell said.
Horst, meanwhile, says she’s grateful for the program.
“Not just for me intellectually, but even to my self-esteem and being able to know I’m a part of something that’s bigger than myself,” Horst said
As part of the program, the students not only took classes, they also interned for The Legal Revolution law firm to work on criminal expungement cases. Horst said she worked on eight expungement cases for four clients.
“Being able to help somebody else get a second chance is profound,” Horst said.
“A second chance” is also how one could describe Horst’s situation.
She’s currently serving a life sentence, but the paralegal program allowed her to show her family that she can still contribute to a society that locked her away for her crime.
“To have these lawyers around [my parents] that are telling them like, ‘Your daughter’s making a difference.’ You know it’s finally that chance for my parents to be proud of me,” Horst said, while fighting back tears.
As for Woodbury, he’s looking forward to seeing what Horst can accomplish with her newfound skillset.
“She’s got a lot of really good ideas and she’s passionate about it,” Woodbury said. “And I’m looking forward to hearing how things turn out.”
Meanwhile, another section of the North Hennepin program just launched. That cohort has nine incarcerated students.