Join DRNC in congratulating Susan (“Susy”) Pollitt who was recently awarded the Julian T Pierce Award, established in 1994 to recognize an outstanding attorney and advocate of equal justice in the state, by the NC Equal Justice Alliance.
Susy joined Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) in 2005, when it was known as Carolina Legal Assistance (CLA). She has specialized in defending the rights of incarcerated people with disabilities. Understanding the cause and effect relationship among the lack of services, unmet needs of people with disabilities, and incarceration, Susy responds with effective grassroots, public policy, and legal strategies to address the gaps and advance the rights of disabled incarcerated individuals. Susy labors daily for people who may never know that their conditions have improved due in large part to her tenacity and ability to pull people together to get results.
Advocates for incarcerated people with disabilities do not often get the public praise that other advocates in the fight for civil rights receive. The public perception that people enmeshed in the criminal legal system are bad and deserve to be punished, regardless of disability or other status, has remained relatively constant throughout history. It takes a great amount of perseverance and resilience to ignore these attitudes and continue fighting for those seen as having forfeited their rights and underserving of protection.
Susy has persevered for 38 years, dedicating her career to fighting tirelessly for the rights of the most forgotten and marginalized people. She began her legal career in 1984 at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office, where she represented clients in criminal court, involuntary commitment proceedings, and appeals. Afterward, Susy advocated for workers’ rights as a coordinator for the NC Occupational Safety and Health Project. In 1989, she joined NC Prisoner Legal Services (NCPLS) where she zealously represented incarcerated individuals and fought against inhumane treatment and violations of their civil rights. Susy gained expertise at NCPLS that helped to make her one of the state’s leading advocates in this field, particularly related to the connections among poverty, race, disability, and incarceration. Her former co-workers at NCPLs remember her as being enthusiastic, zealous and caring toward her clients. She was also a teacher and mentor to less experienced lawyers and advocates. And Susy has continued her strong advocacy over 17 years with us at DRNC.
Luke Woollard, an attorney on the DRNC’s criminal legal team, describes Susy this way: “Susy is skilled in her advocacy, strategic in her approach to legal problems, and ardent in her representation of her clients. This much is clear to anyone who has known her. However, what has impressed me most about Susy since I started working with her is the unerring, tenacious empathy that she brings to every aspect of her work. Throughout her career, she has chosen to apply her significant talent in service of those who are exploited, imprisoned, and left voiceless in an unjust system that can often seem an immovable monolith, completely resistant to the kind of progress that Susy continues to bring about through tireless, expert advocacy. She is driven by genuine concern for the people she represents, and she never loses sight of the ultimate goal of her work – protecting the rights, dignity, and voices of those who need that protection the most. Working with Susy has made me a better attorney, a more effective advocate, and taught me that while there often may seem to be an unbridgeable gap between what you know is just and where you find yourself, there is always something you can, and should, do about it.”
After 38 years, Susy is still active in all aspects of civil advocacy. She engages with state policymakers, agency leaders, and grassroots organizations to improve conditions and treatment of prisoners with disabilities and continues to visit with people in prison as current conditions allow. She also responds to letters from many incarcerated people with disabilities seeking assistance, provides technical assistance to attorneys and advocates across the state, and helps usher in the next generation of advocates for incarcerated people with disabilities.
In 2016, Susy worked to eliminate solitary confinement for people in prison under 18 years of age. Using DRNC’s federal access authority to monitor in prisons holding these young people, she produced a report that brought attention to the problem. As a result, the Commission of Prisons at the time, Mr. W. David Guice, developed the Youthful Offender Program that requires each youth separated from the general population to be out of cell about 6 hours a day.
In 2019, Susy led her team’s efforts in a campaign to bring greater attention to the psychological effect of long-term solitary confinement on incarcerated people, including a written series about the harmful effects of solitary confinement. In January of this year, Susy helped secure funding from the Unlock the Box Campaign to support DRNC’s efforts to develop strategies and plans to end the harmful practice of long-term solitary confinement.
Susy and her team continue to increase public awareness of increasing numbers of suicides and deaths in NC jails, and the inadequate access to medical care. In 2017, Susy and her team released DRNC’s report on jail deaths detailing the alarming increase in suicide deaths in NC jails from 2013 – 2016. They continue to track and update this information and keep media attention on this issue to improve the conditions of incarcerated people with disabilities. She persists in urging county sheriffs and state legislators to require improved response from jails when people are in mental health crises, and to address the gaps in oversight leading to these deaths.
In March 2020, Susy was part of a team that filed a civil action against the State. DRNC, in collaboration with the NAACP, ACLU-NC, Forward Justice, and Emancipate NC sought an emergency lawsuit to prevent the infections and death of prisoners caused by the deadly spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons. COVID has a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities, and 32% of people in prison have one or more disabilities. The team of attorneys successfully advocated for the release of 3,500 incarcerated people and negotiated other safety and reporting requirements to protect the health of incarcerated individuals. The settlement ensured that the state took important measures to mitigate the ongoing threat of COVID-19 in North Carolina’s prisons. Some of the measures included vaccination and safe testing, cohorting, transfer protocols, and monitoring and complaint processes.
DRNC’s CEO Virginia Knowlton Marcus shared, “Our society routinely marginalizes, segregates, and criminalizes disability. This can be recognized in the disproportionate number of disabled people who end up enmeshed in our criminal legal systems, where actual justice is elusive. Black, Latino, Indigenous and other People of Color (BLIPOC) with disabilities are most harmed by the double impacts of racism and ableism, and wind up stuck in the deep ends of these systems, where they are subjected to discrimination and abuse. They are some of the most difficult clients that DRNC represents because of the one-dimensional, widely held but erroneous supposition that they are simply “bad” people who deserve whatever fate befalls them in prisons and jails. Susy routinely encounters the odds, obstacles and prejudices facing these individuals. Her humanity and advocacy are beacons of reason and hope in a sea of ignorance and injustice. DRNC believes that Susy Pollitt’s tireless work on behalf of this too-often discarded and forgotten population continues an important legacy in our state.”
Julian Pierce was an attorney and civil rights activist in Robeson County. Among his many acts of public service, Pierce served as the first director of Lumbee River Legal Services, now NC Legal Aid. He was murdered in 1988 during his campaign to become the state’s first American Indian Superior Court Judge – which he won, posthumously.
Like Pierce, Susy has spent her life aggressively advocating on behalf of marginalized people and has made a difference. She has continued fighting relentlessly and zealously for 38 years for people that many would like to forget exist. In doing so, she has inspired many other advocates across the state to continue to fight for the rights of others. Susy’s work has affected thousands of lives. These individuals may not know of Susy, but they are benefiting from her legacy. She does not continue doing this challenging and difficult work for the accolades; yet we hope this award serves as a reminder that her efforts have been noticed and are appreciated by so many.
Evidence of her most recent successful advocacy efforts to increase public awareness of the devastating psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement and end long-term solitary confinement, improve the treatment of juvenile offenders with mental health disorders and intellectual disabilities, and decrease the incidents of suicide in our prisons and jails are found in media coverage. Recently, Susy wrote an Op-Ed about the nine people who have died by suicide in North Carolina prisons this year. This disturbing trend must be addressed. Read more here!