Webster University is home to a new program that provides a service most hope to never need. However, for those who need it, The WILLOW Project has the potential to change, and even save, lives from being spent behind bars.
The WILLOW Project, which stands for Women Initiate Legal Lifelines to Other Women, was brought to the university by Webster’s Chair of Women and Gender Studies, Anne Geraghty-Rathert. The project is run with the help of former Webster students Shane Kincaid, now director of operations for McGuire Counseling Center, and Eileen McManmon, Webster’s legal studies department representative.
The goal of The WILLOW Project is to provide cost-free legal assistance to underprivileged women. It was officially incorporated this past summer, but has worked with 3 clients for years now, according to Kincaid and Geraghty-Rathert.
“Our ultimate vision is that we would offer to people who have no financial resources or access to the justice system legal assistance in whatever kind of case that they’re involved in,” said Geraghty-Rathert.
The WILLOW Project is currently working with three clients. One of their ongoing cases is for a woman named Angel. A Webster intern working for WILLOW found a clerical error in Angel’s case, a wrongly checked box, which made the difference in her being ever eligible for parole. The finding was perhaps the project’s greatest achievement so far, Kincaid said.
“The students here who are helping us aren’t working on a case out of a textbook or that was settled 50 years ago. They’re working on a case right now that’s going to impact somebody’s life right now,” said Kincaid.
After their success with Angel, letters from other prisoners asking for help began to rush in., Geraghty-Rathert said, but they’ve chosen very selectively. That is how they met their other two clients, one of whom was only 16 when she was charged.
“After suffering a lifetime of abuse, they were essentially taken, both literally and figuratively, on a ride in which someone else killed people and then they were charged along with their abusers for the crimes that their abusers committed. All three of them, and there are more – lots,” said Geraghty-Rathert.
The WILLOW Project, working with the Clemency Coalition who operate in a similar way, will be hosting a press conference October 28th, at 9:00 am in Saint Louis University’s Law School Courtroom to ask for clemency for one of their clients.
“We’re going to take our first step to politicize our client’s cases by releasing their names and their stories,” said Geraghty-Rathert. “We’re going to call upon the governor to grant clemency to one of our clients, but one of the problems is that [Governor Nixon] has only ever granted one clemency. In his defense, not many Missouri governors have.”
Geraghty-Rathert said that she would like to see Webster University support The WILLOW Project in creating a clinical program that would allow students to get internships and work with WILLOW. Kincaid agreed, pointing out that a variety of majors could really benefit from such a program.
“In a perfect world we’d be able to include virtually every department. We’d love to go to the prison and film our women giving their stories, so the media department could get in on that. So, I think it has the potential to be that large it’s just a matter of when it will be,” said Kincaid.