16th Powell Fellow Works for a Healthier Prison System
Shannon Ellis ’15 is helping to hold a Virginia prison accountable for its inmates’ health, the latest step in a high-profile class-action lawsuit that could have far-reaching consequences. Ellis is the University of Virginia School of Law’s 16th Powell Fellow in Legal Services.
Since Ellis began working for the Legal Aid Justice Center in January 2017 and as a fellow starting last November, she has met with more than 100 women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy, Virginia, to help ensure they are healthy and safe, and that their rights are being met.
“Those in prison deserve their civil and constitutional rights, but they get entangled in the system,” Ellis said. “For these women, the stakes are huge — sometimes life or death.”
The correctional center was the focus of a 2012 class-action lawsuit facilitated by LAJC and others, Scott v. Clark, which sought constitutionally adequate health care for inmates at the facility. The center helped negotiate the case to settlement in 2014. The court approved the settlement in 2016 and appointed an independent doctor to serve as monitor.
In September, inmates — represented pro bono by LAJC, Wiley Rein and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs — filed a subsequent motion asking the court to enforce the settlement agreement, arguing the prison has not lived up to its obligations. That case is scheduled for trial in federal court Monday.
Ellis said many of the inmates she meets not only have issues with physical health, but also with mental health or literacy, which further limits their ability to navigate a “very confusing and difficult” system.
The Powell Fellowship, named for Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., awards $45,000 and benefits to recipients who enhance the delivery of legal services to the indigent under the sponsorship of a host public interest organization. The award is made for one year with the expectation that it will be renewed for a second year. Powell Fellows are also eligible for the school's Loan Forgiveness Program.
Ellis noted that many of the women she works with are seeking justice and assistance not just for themselves, but for their fellow inmates.
“These women have huge needs, but when we sit down to meet, they first talk about others who need help.”
When her trial work concludes, Ellis will shift her focus to working in the juvenile justice system at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Chesterfield County, Virginia. The center houses more than 250 children and young adults, ages 11 to 20, and is the only youth prison in the state.
A 2015 graduate of the Law School, Ellis is a “Double Hoo” who earned her bachelor’s in English in 2012. She previously worked in a family law practice and was volunteering pro bono when she realized she wanted to shift to public service to help fix flaws in the legal system.
Ellis worked at LAJC part-time before transitioning into full-time employment upon receiving her fellowship.
“From my first day it was really clear that this was what I wanted to do,” Ellis said. “When you get involved and see someone start to get the care they really need, it’s very satisfying.”
LAJC has four offices in Virginia and provides legal representation for low-income individuals throughout the state. Ellis follows in the footsteps of Megan Lisa ’15, Mario Salas ’13, Kim Rolla ’13 and others who first worked for the center as Powell Fellows.
Angela Ciolfi ’03, LAJC’s director of litigation and advocacy, also served as a Powell Fellow and oversees Ellis’ work today. She praised Ellis’ “quick wit, dogged perseverance and boundless empathy.”
“Shannon has established herself as an asset to her clients and colleagues with astonishing speed,” Ciolfi said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t ask myself, ‘What would I do without Shannon?’”