I wake up in the morning and I can’t wait to get to work. I know I’m in the right place.”
Kim Jenkins daily passes through three checkpoints and two locked gates with metal detectors to reach her law library and the people she serves-2,500 inmates incarcerated at Riker's Island Correctional Facility awaiting hearings or serving sentences for crimes ranging from murder to narcotics to shoplifting. They find in her someone who will guide them through the intricacies of legal actions on matters ranging from parole to divorce and landlord disputes- and, not incidentally, show them respect. "I wake up in the morning and I can't wait to get to work," she says. "I know I'm in the right place."
By age 16, Kim wanted to be a lawyer: "I'm a fighter, always standing up for someone else," she says. But in her 20s, she "wasn't brave enough to jump into it," and instead, she trained as a paralegal and worked 18 years for corporate law firms handling patent, trademark, antitrust, publishing, and finance matters. Married and raising a son, she had put law school firmly out of her mind, but it was still in her husband Horton's mind, as he prayed she would attain her career goals during a prayer circle at their church. VLS alum William McCoy '96, who was part of the circle, listened carefully-and within a year, Kim was accepted at VLS and was packing her bags for herself and her four-year-old son, Caleb, "crying like a baby I was so afraid."
She quickly found in South Royalton "warm and inviting" VLS folks, a close-by apartment, excellent daycare-and the need for a new way of analytical thinking in her courses. "It was like trying to swim through mud," she says, "but once I start something, there's never a thought about quitting." Her husband came up almost every weekend from Long Island.
After VLS, she worked in the Nassau County District Attorney's Office and then for a criminal defense attorney, but when she needed a change in schedule to care for a mother on dialysis and two brothers with lung cancer, she jumped at the legal coordinator position at Rikers.
The law library that she supervises-the outcome of a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating access to legal information for prisoners-supplies law books, computer databases, 175 boilerplate legal forms, and a bilingual inmate staff of eight, who also help photocopying and mailing. The prisoners rotate into the library on six shifts daily-segregated in housing units by the violence of their crimes, gang membership, and mental disorders. "Legally we can't function as their attorneys, but because a lot of them can't write or aren't educated, we can assist them in helping to fill out the forms and write their motions," Kim says. She also intercedes with the inmates living in medical and drug detox sections when she sees a confused prisoner not getting the care he is entitled to. "The inmates know that in this big vast system, if they want to get something done, there is one person here who will help them," she says.
Not that she's a pushover: "If you give someone a sandwich, the next thing they'll be asking you to get them drugs," she says. She draws the line and opts for frankness: "You have a family, a child that needs you-you don't need to be in here," she'll castigate an inmate, or "You are a brilliant guy, you have skills-you don't need to be breaking into warehouses at night." In two years, she's seen inmates she's helped come back through again-apologizing ashamedly when they see her. "You can't invest too much hope- but I don't want to abandon the person when he might just be at his turning point," she says.