Publish Date: September 22, 2023
Publication Name: National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL)
Episode Title: From Prosecutor to Prison Consultant – Criminal Justice Advocacy with Tara Lenich
Media Source: Apple Podcasts
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:00:11] Hello. Welcome back to the National Association of Women Lawyers podcast Conversations to help you thrive in the legal profession. My name is Courtney Worcester (NAWL) and I am a partner in the Boston office of Holland Knight. I am thrilled to be hosting today’s podcast, which will explore a fascinating career path and a woman that provides services that many of us probably haven’t thought much about before. She is a mitigation specialist, a sentencing advocate, and a prison consultant. Today, I’m pleased to be joined by Tara Lynch, founder of Liberty Advisors, LLC. Welcome to the podcast, Tara. Thanks for being here with us today.
Tara Lenich [00:00:50] Thanks so much for having me.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:00:52] So before we dive into what one does as a mitigation specialist, sentencing advocate and prison consultant, why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Tara Lenich [00:01:04] Thanks, Courtney. I grew up in western Massachusetts and Wilton, Connecticut. I went to undergrad at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, attended law school at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. I was then a prosecutor for about a decade in New York City, where I tried a bunch of felony cases, as well as ran and supervised long term investigations involving conspiracy and enterprise corruption, mostly dealing with gun traffickers and gang members. Right now, I live in Connecticut. I work all over the country and I spend almost half the year on Cape Cod.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:01:45] Excellent. So your life took a little bit of an unexpected turn, which in many ways was the impetus for the founding of your company. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your journey.
Tara Lenich [00:01:58] Absolutely. Well, I was at the DA’s office. I found myself in a state of drowning. I was completely overwhelmed. I felt very alone. And I made a series of bad choices. Those choices landed me on the other side of the law. And I experienced firsthand what it was like to be in a courtroom as a defendant and facing potential prison time. I pled guilty and faced a judge and was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison. I did ten months at Danbury Prison Camp. I really had a chance to think and learn from my mistakes and move forward using the experience I had, both as a prosecutor and as a defendant to help other people that are facing the criminal legal system.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:02:53] Now, as a prosecutor, obviously, you are more familiar with the legal system and even the prison system than most people who are exposed to it for the first time. But I’m sure that being on the other side of the VA, so to speak, is a very different experience. So what was sort of the most surprising to you when you went through that experience, you know, being the defendant, not the prosecutor?
Tara Lenich [00:03:24] Well, I think a couple of things. First, it was hard not to speak first. You know, when the judge referred to the prosecutors, it was very hard for me not to, like, stand up and speak in the courtroom. But secondly, I don’t think as a prosecutor, I understood like the inner workings of the system of the incarceration system. And I think I was most surprised to learn that the health care available is deplorable. It’s terrible. And it was so mind boggling to me, like how the BOP approaches health care that it just seems so backwards and inefficient from the very first day when you enter the dentist just counts your teeth and, you know, they say like we don’t provide an antibiotic. So basically, if you have a toothache, your tooth is getting pulled. That was the extent of dental. You know it. There was a woman who fell down like a small flight of stairs, had a bone protruding from her leg, and they didn’t have anyone to transport her to the hospital for almost 12 hours. So she just had to stay there. It was awful. Like they gave her a wheelchair to sit. I have so many examples like I got I get sinus infections and I had two sinus infections back-to-back and they refused to give me more antibiotics unless I was willing to get a head MRI. And I’m like, wait, you’d rather spend the time and the money to send me out of the facility to go get an MRI than giving me amoxicillin? It just seemed so crazy. So I really think just like the lack of access to basic medical care was, you know, flabbergasting to me.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:05:10] That’s so interesting that you say that, because I guess I had a naive assumption that, you know, you’re in a either state or federal prison facility and there is medical care just being provided. Right. Like you’re there, you see doctors, they’ll have their own prescriptions, things like that. It never dawned on me that that would be it would be so challenging for such a basic treatment that you’re talking about.
Tara Lenich [00:05:35] Right. I mean, I only saw a doctor the first day, and that was just because he was covering when I entered the facility. He was the medical person covering. And so after that, and I don’t ever saw a doctor, you see, you know, medical technicians, you know, and they provide pills to you. If you if you have certain medications, you have to stand in pill line and be observed ingesting the medication. So you’re not pocketing in it. Bring it back to your room. Look. Well, I had to do that, but I was getting allergy medicine. So even for Zyrtec or XYZ all or whatever you take, but you have to stand in line and, you know, be observed taking it.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:06:13] That’s so crazy. I’m sure one of the other things that was maybe difficult to adjust to while you are at Danbury is, you know, one of the benefits of being a lawyer is we kind of control our own universe, right? We control what we do to an extent, day to day. You know, where we go, what we do. It must have been very strange to suddenly be in a situation where you’re not dictating what you do from the moment you get up to the moment you go to sleep.
Tara Lenich [00:06:48] Yeah, absolutely. You actually don’t dictate really anything because there’s a schedule provided for you, even if that’s a lack of schedule. When I first was there, I had no job. It takes it took a while to get up to a job and that’s different depending on what facility you’re in. So I would sit outside and read magazines literally from like seven in the morning till four in the afternoon and do nothing. Do nothing. I mean, it was it was weird to me to have go from such like a frenetic pace of, you know, running these investigations on, you know, every moment counts to 12 hours of free time. I’m like, I don’t even know what to do with myself and. You’re right. Like I want to. You want to speak up, right? And you want to say, like, we can make this better and we can fix this. And that’s, you know, with legal training and just who I am. And you can’t do any of those things. You just have to learn to go along and get along and, you know, see the small places that you can make a difference.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:07:49] So while you were going through, you’re the legal process, while you were waiting to be sentenced or you were making the decisions as to what you were going to be doing, you know, were there certain services that you decided to utilize to try and help you get through that process?
Tara Lenich [00:08:07] I did. I hired obviously, I had a. Great, great defense attorney. And I was also going through a civil case. So I also had a civil attorney and I hired prison consultants who assured me that they would help either reduce my sentence or get me designated to a certain facility. They’d prepare me for what it was going to be like inside and, you know, help me get out early if that was possible. And so in using those services, I really didn’t get. The help or support that I needed. They weren’t able to reduce my sentence. You know, everyone assured me, oh, you’ll get probation. I mean, my attorney was definitely clear. You could face jail time, but everyone else was like, Oh, please, you’re not you’re never going to go to prison. And then the judge sentenced me to year and a day. So I was like, Wait, what? Okay, so now I need to prepare for prison. And in the companies that I hired basically provided me with printout sheets of like the different facilities, you know, Danbury and Alderson, West Virginia, because those are the two closest in the Northeast where I was from. And they said, but you’ll never go to Danbury because it’ll be a safety issue, because you a prosecutor, some of the people that you prosecuted could be there. So like wipe that one out, even though that was 20 minutes from my parents’ house and very convenient for us. So you can look at West Virginia, you can look at Florida, you can look at Lexington, Kentucky. So. Okay. If those are my only options. And then they also said to me like. You have to provide us with your list of medications, if any, because we’ll check the formulary. We’ll be able to see from the inside of your if you’re able to use any of the medicines that you’re on, thankfully, which wasn’t a lot. And I realized later, like the formulary is available online and I had only gotten sheets that were like printed from the Bureau of Prisons website. And so that was disconcerting, to say the least. And then they tell me I was designated to Alderson, West Virginia. So I show up there and I get to meet the guard at the door and she’s like, No, your designation was changed three months ago. You have to be in Danbury tonight or a federal warrant will issue for your arrest. I’m like, excuse me. That’s very far away. And so, you know, after a momentary panic attack, I was like, okay, what do I need to do? Like, I called my attorneys. I called, you know, everybody involved in my case. I was like, someone needs to get to the judge and have this extended. So I did. They did. I was able to then report to Danbury, where they said I would never go in. Like, it was little things for me. I didn’t realize that you can’t wear contacts in prison. And so I have you know, I’m legally blind without my contacts and glasses in the facility. You can bring one pair of glasses in, and if they break, it could be up to two years before you get a new pair. So. I elected to have eye surgery. Well, that then delayed my sentencing. And the judge was, thank goodness, amenable to it. But if I had known ahead of time, I was waiting for sentencing for quite a long time, I could have definitely prepared and done that ahead of time. So I think my advice for people would be speak to the person that you’re thinking about hiring and, you know, don’t assume just because of a prior position that they had or a job that they had that they’re going to have any sort of inside knowledge or pain, you know, and be able to manipulate the system because that is not necessarily the case.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:11:52] Well, and it sounds like for you at least, knowing about what I would consider more of like the practicalities of like, how does this work? What do you mean? I don’t have contacts like that. Sort of the nitty gritty day to day having someone walk you through that or identify potential issues to you around, that would have been incredibly helpful as you’re sort of preparing to report.
Tara Lenich [00:12:18] Exactly. Instead of learning on the eve of a reporting. You know, it would be nice to know ahead of time. Like I just think to. For me, especially, knowledge is power, right? If I know what I’m going to face. I can like, wrap my brain around it and like, push through it. But if it’s the fear of the unknown that it’s so terrifying and if I can provide people with like this is what to expect. Start preparing this now. You have plenty of time. You know, cases take a long time to get through the system and you can do these things in this way and take some control over your life. You know, like you said, we’re used to having control. And it might one of the big things that I advocate is taking back some control, you know, in the little places that you can.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:13:05] And you mentioned you ended up serving ten months in Danbury. And I think you’ve talked to us a little bit about what that was like. But I think many of us, even in the legal profession, get a lot of our information on the prison system from television. So, you know, whether it’s Oz or Orange is the New Black, like, that’s what we have in our head when we think of, like, what a prison looks like. What was surprising to you about you show up, you report, you probably have in your head what it’s going to be like. You know, what’s going to happen. Was it, you know, sort of more mundane than you thought it was going to be? Was it scarier than you thought it was going to be? What were those first few days and weeks like?
Tara Lenich [00:13:48] I mean, I was terrified, don’t get me wrong, especially as a prosecutor going into prison, and it was near where I had prosecuted. So I was like, what am I going to tell people? What do I say I do? Because the first thing you’re going to get asked is 10 million questions about yourself, right? Because you’re the new person. I will say, even though it’s called a camp, it was nothing like camp. It was dirty, it was cramped, and sometimes policies just made no sense, which made me bananas. Yet I will say there were positive and rewarding experiences that I had there that I didn’t think I would have had going in. I’m definitely a people person, so I thought I would be fine going in and talking to people and making friends. And I did meet some incredible women, the lifelong friends, two of whom work in this business with me. I didn’t realize how much free time you would have, or at least that we did a nice facility. So I you know, I read over a hundred books. I learned how to play mahjong. I learned how to crochet. I had a series of different jobs. I worked in the prison library in the beginning. And then that was just extremely boring because it’s very small and there’s a lot of books. And so then I started tutoring women to get their G.E.D., and I really enjoyed that. And then I actually co-taught a mock trial class where we had a federal judge come and sit as the judge for the trial, which was really pretty cool. And I worked in construction, so I know how to set a toilet now and I can paint and I can put up drywall and I can make cement. So it’s all things that I never thought I would do. But it was it was good to do some, like physical labor getting outside. I met a whole different group of women, so I really enjoyed that. I will say the sanitary conditions are what you would expect. They’re terrible, you know, but you find a way through. And I really think that was. A big takeaway that I wasn’t sure was how it was going to be is that women in prison really do help each other, you know, and it’s all about you cannot survive it by yourself. You need to rely on other people there and they need to be able to rely on you, whether it’s teaching you the informal rules or telling you how to make your bed in the winter so you can put on more than the two allotted blankets, or you have family trauma or drama at home, and that’s who you turn to. So it’s everything from like a little mundane daily things to the big emotional life, things that you’re going through with these other women. And it’s an incredible support system.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:16:35] That’s amazing. Yeah. You don’t. I guess I didn’t think about the opportunities you would have to make really good friends into and to have be supportive of them. But then them also being supportive of you, You know, I guess I sort of thought of it, especially with you being a former prosecutor, that you might be kind of on an island by yourself. Right. And it being, you know, sort of very isolated and and on your own. But it sounds like the experience wasn’t like that.
Tara Lenich [00:17:01] Yeah, well, to be clear, I didn’t I only said I was a prosecutor until the first person I met. And she was like, okay, never say that again.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:17:08] Rule number one.
Tara Lenich [00:17:10] You are an attorney. Make up some kind of law. You know, and so, like, after that, I wasn’t like, hi, I was a prosecutor because a bunch of things would happen. Then first of all, I might have prosecuted someone that was there or been involved in their prosecution or my office was involved in their prosecution, which would not, you know, necessarily I don’t worry about immediate safety, but there would definitely have been concerns. But secondly, then everybody like, can you look at my case? Can you look at my case clearly and you would feel bad not doing it, You know, so even as I told everyone that I was an attorney, they still you know, you still help people and do look at their cases and not obviously for legal stuff because you can’t, but just for writing and grammar and syntax and stuff like that. So yeah, it was, it was definitely that was my first rule. Like don’t say that next.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:18:07] The good first day rule that that was that. Well, so at what point did you start thinking about forming your own company while you were at Danbury?
Tara Lenich [00:18:17] Well, actually, while I was waiting to be sentenced, I knew I was not going to be able to practice law again. So I started taking online classes for small business management and accounting. I didn’t necessarily know exactly what I wanted to do. I had lots of thoughts, I think. I was like, Oh, I could be a dog trainer because I love dogs and, you know, a dog sitter. And then once I was sentenced to prison and went to the wrong prison, as I said, I was like, wait a minute, I can do this better. Like, I know the system from both sides. This is a way that I can use all this experience and training and knowledge that I have to really help people. And I started talking with women in Danbury about if they had hired prison consultants, what their experiences were like, if they hadn’t hired them. What would they want from them? How could they have benefited from one? How could their families benefited? And I really as I thought through this at Danbury, I really wanted to include families because so often the client is taken care of by their attorneys, you know, and any forensic experts that are hired. But the families are often left traumatized and don’t have a basis of knowledge. And I really thought they could use like a sit down and explain and prepare each step. You know, this is what the arrest is going to be like. If you have a heads up and you’re allowed to self surrender, you know, and the arrest going to be like, this is what sentencing could be like. You know, the prosecutor is going to get up and say really bad stuff about your loved one. And you just have to keep in mind that you know them, you know, and the judge is probably going to say things that you don’t want to hear. But, you know, I can walk them through all that having. Been so familiar with the courtroom as a prosecutor, but also knowing what it feels like as a defendant sitting in that courtroom.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:20:10] Well, and I think that’s a really good point because, you know, when we talk about the different services that your company provides and we’ll talk about that in a little bit, you know, my first reaction in reading some of those descriptions was, well, this is like what your defense attorney is supposed to do, right? Like, this is why you’re paying for a defense attorney. Or if you have a public defender, what they’re going to do. But I think especially to your point as of helping families and maybe putting more emotional context around what’s happening and understanding the whole process and really being there as a as a sounding board and to walk them through. You know, a lot of attorneys are obviously handling multiple cases, multiple clients. You know, they have time to provide the services to the clients. But answering questions of mom and sister and dad or children, you know, that gets harder for them to do, I’m sure. So I’m sure that they’re the families that you work with are grateful to have input from you and to really be able to call and say, wait, we do not understand. Like, what are you like the lawyer said, What does this mean? What’s going to happen next?
Tara Lenich [00:21:17] Right. We can help manage expectations, too, you know, like don’t go in there. Assuming this is all going to be, you know, fine. And everything we agreed to is going to be what happens in court that that just never turns out that way. And so I really can provide them also with just my firsthand knowledge. But there’s ways to prepare. You know, if you’re going to have to run the media gantlet, you want to know that ahead of time. I had to do that. You know, there was press parked outside my parents’ house, my apartment in New York City, you know, for days. And I was in and out of the courtroom every single time there was a throng of media. And so there is simple things like that that you’re like, well, where they all come from that I can say, okay, this case has the certain notoriety you’re going to face the media. Let’s talk about how we can get through it. And because it’s not just, you know, the client, they have to focus on like getting to the courtroom, listening to their attorneys, going through, you know, the legal strategies. But the family is often left like. You know, alone, I would say. And that’s not for lack of a defense attorney. It’s just there’s only so much that they can do. They’re dealing with, like the legal complexities and issues in their strategy, and they need to get that taken care of. And so we really provide more of a support role and a support role to for the clients just telling them more what it’s going to be like from firsthand knowledge in a courtroom. You know, the attorney is going to go through all the legal stuff with them and then we go through the non legal.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:22:47] So your company, Liberty Advisors LLC, provides three distinct yet seemingly very related services. So let’s talk a little bit about each one. The first service that you provide is being a mitigation specialist. What does that mean?
Tara Lenich [00:23:05] So as mitigation specialists, you can either be hired by defense attorneys or appointed by the court, depending on what type of case it is. And if that’s the appointment, then you conduct exhaustive social history investigations where you interview the clients and any collateral witnesses such as families, teachers, neighbors, care providers, employers, coworkers. And you really highlight the circumstances and factors of why this man’s case merits special consideration. And we provide those reports, the defense counsels, so that they enable them to help support and persuade probation or the prosecutors or the court to consider these additional factors that they may not have considered. And they the defense attorneys can use it, whether it’s in bail applications or plea requests. You know, when it comes time for sentencing and we have the time and the skills to gather all of this, sometimes very voluminous information when it frees up defense attorneys to focus on the critical legal matters or the stage of that particular case.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:24:18] And now you also provide assistance as a sentencing advocate. What kind of work does that entail?
Tara Lenich [00:24:26] Well, it’s very similar. And you’re right. Like all these, these services do overlap. And that’s why when I started, I was just doing prison consulting. And a defense attorney actually said to me, Well, wait a minute, you should get certified as a mitigation specialist and sentencing advocate. So I did, because they all do overlap and they really weave together and they complement each other. So if you can start working on all of them at the same time, it generally is more helpful, but it specifically is a sentencing advocate. We design individualized sentencing reports, videos or other materials that help defense attorneys tell their client’s full story and understand any like factors or. Extraneous information that may have influenced how the client arrived in their current predicament. And so we just look beyond this one moment in time and really try and show the client as a whole person and everything that their life is entailed.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:25:28] And then finally, you also provide a prison consulting services. What do you do in connection with that?
Tara Lenich [00:25:35] As prison consultants, we’re really providing practical, firsthand knowledge and preparing clients for what to expect at each of the stages that we’ve talked about, whether it’s arrest, plea trial, sentencing, going actually to prison, what the first few days are going to be like, what it’s going to be like throughout their time there, and also reentry planning for getting out as soon as you’re going in and working on that plan. And the aim is really to reduce anxiety and provide client care through knowledge and preparation. And we also coordinate character reference letters. And my feeling is personally, even if the defense attorney doesn’t want to use all of the letters that we collect, it’s really important for the client to see that all of these people see them in a way that isn’t just this one moment, right? They might remember a good thing that they did or somewhere that they volunteered or just a special moment that they shared, that the client can then look back on and say like, Oh, I forgot about that. It’s just really nice to hear positive words when you’re going through one of the most negative trying times in your life. And we meet with clients and their families to walk them through what to expect. We tell them how they can prepare both the client and the family. We discuss potential designations of different types of prisons and what those may entail. We describe what life will be like on the inside in an effort to make it easier. And we discuss like visitation, you know, how are you going to be able to communicate with your loved ones throughout your time there? What’s the food going to be like? What are you going to have access to? Gym type services? What do you know what to do about your restitution and your fines? And in this service, we really are freeing the defense team up at critical junctures and just providing a second layer of support for the non legal matters.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:27:37] And now, do you also provide support services for folks when they’ve been released from prison such that their reentry is smoother or so they can sort of prepare for, you know, what’s going to happen the day they get out?
Tara Lenich [00:27:53] Yeah, And we like to communicate with them while they’re in prison and work on a reentry plan throughout the time that they’re in there, because the BOP will look at what their reentry plan is and allowing them to be released early. You know, they’re going to want to verify that you have a place to go home to. They’re going to want to verify that you at least looking for a job or that you’ve gained skills that will enable you to get a job when you’re released to a halfway house. They’re going to look at the same type of things. Where are you going to go when you’re released from here? Probation is going to look at those matters. And so I think starting that plan while you’re in prison is crucial. It doesn’t mean it can’t change or evolve. And, you know, things happen and you’ve been away from society. So it needs to evolve sometimes, and that’s fine. We just continue to work on it so that when you get out, it’s not okay. Now what you’ve at least thought of different pathways that you can explore. And I just think it’s a more positive way to look at it instead of another time of you being like, Wait, now what? You know, in, you know, a halfway house is not home. So prepare for what that’s going to be like and how that’s going to affect you.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:29:06] So based upon your own personal experience and the interactions that you’ve had with your clients and helping them go through this process, what do you think is the most important advice for someone who is about to be sentenced or who is about to report to prison?
Tara Lenich [00:29:26] I would first say hire a prison consultant to walk you through it. But if you can’t, I would say see all of your doctors that you can get your medical history up to date and take some deep breaths. You’re going to get through this. And when you’re going to prison, just be as humble and decent a person as you would want to, you know, treat people how you would want to be treated. And that’s really, it’s that simple. You know, there are some basic things that you. Should do to prepare, and that’s getting yourself healthy mentally and physically, emotionally as well as you can. And, you know, going in with at least a semi positive attitude.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:30:10] Before we close today, is there anything else that you’d like to share with our listeners?
Tara Lenich [00:30:15] Just that we’re here when you need us and you can reach me on the web. Our company is Liberty Advisors LLC, so it’s WW W Liberty Advisors LLC dot com. Or you can email me personally at Tara. Tara at Liberty Advisors, LLC AECOM.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:30:33] Thank you so much, Tara, for sharing your journey with us today and for really helping explain to us a segment of the legal world that I think many of us don’t know as much about as we should.
Tara Lenich [00:30:48] Thank you so much, Courtney. It was great. Thank you so much for having me.
Courtney Worcester (NAWL) [00:30:52] Of course.
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