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Tuesday, August 24, 2021
Road to Redemption
Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic members and their client Clyde Meikle celebrate Meikle’s graduation from Wesleyan University. From left are Felisha Miles ’21, Katherine Zhang ’20, Meikle, Clinical Associate Professor of Law Miriam Gohara, Eli Feasley ’21, and Frankie Hedgepeth ’22.
Clyde Meikle was arrested in 1994 for murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison; he dedicated himself while incarcerated to self-improvement, rehabilitation, and service. With the help of Law School students in the Peter Gruber Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic (CMIC), Meikle was resentenced to 28 years in January 2021 and was released from prison in May.
To all who’ve met him, it’s clear that Clyde Meikle exceeded every expectation for rehabilitation that could have been set for him since entering the carceral system nearly 30 years ago. Originally sentenced to 50 years in prison for fatally shooting his cousin, Meikle devoted his time in prison to developing a new sense of self. He set forward on a course grounded in hope and a drive to improve the world around him despite the uncertainty about his own future.
While serving his sentence, Meikle became a mentor of Connecticut’s innovative, rehabilitation-focused TRUE Unit at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. There, he created or led more than 20 unique courses and programs, ranging from conflict resolution circles to helping mentees — young men whom the older mentors counsel — develop the financial literacy skills they will need after they served their sentences.
As a TRUE mentor, Meikle’s focus was on building relationships with incarcerated young men. “And in the process of building relationships with them, I built a relationship with myself,” Meikle said. “I have a picture of myself as a younger man on my phone and when I look at it, it reminds me of the relationships I have with the mentees. I had to always be reminded that I was once them, and looking at that picture reminds me that I was once them.”
During his incarceration, Meikle enrolled as a student at Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education (CPE) in 2009. CPE offers accredited Wesleyan courses to students who are incarcerated.
“When I went to CPE I had already read a lot, but I realized that I didn’t know how to read,” Meikle said. “So initially it was a challenge, but allowing the professors and other students to teach me — and also them allowing me to be taught, which I know was hard for them — was a beautiful thing for me.”
At Wesleyan, Meikle studied philosophy, particularly the work of Michel Foucault, and was among the first 18 students in the state of Connecticut to receive an Associate degree through the program.
In 2021, he graduated Wesleyan with a Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree. Meikle was released from prison on his 50th birthday and the day before his Wesleyan graduation. On graduation day, he donned Wesleyan’s cardinal red regalia and walked across the stage at Commencement to accept his diploma. Yale Law School Clinical Associate Professor of Law Miriam Gohara, Meikle’s lawyer, and several of the students and alumni who had represented him attended the graduation and celebrated afterward with him, his family, and friends.
“Being on the campus was the coolest thing ever, being around so many people my first day out, and I didn’t feel like I wasn’t supposed to be there,” he said. “I felt like I was supposed to be there. That was a beautiful experience — being released, going to the CPE office, and then being in a room with all of the people that were important to my life at the end of my incarceration. That was beautiful.”
While on his path to rehabilitation, Meikle met Gohara through Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16, who had taught a class at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. Gohara was interested in learning about the TRUE program, so Meikle agreed to meet with her. Though he never asked for assistance in his own legal case, after hearing about his role in founding TRUE and his rehabilitation, Gohara offered the clinic’s representation. The relationship with the clinic and its students would eventually become instrumental to his release.
“I will carry the lessons I’ve learned from working alongside Mr. Meikle with me for the rest of my life.”
—Frankie Hedgepeth ’22
“Clyde struck me as exceptionally generous and thoughtful,” Gohara said. “The state of Connecticut had entrusted rehabilitation of younger incarcerated men to Clyde and the other TRUE mentors, so it only seemed fair to offer Clyde an opportunity to persuade a court that his own rehabilitation warranted a second look at his sentence.”
The clinic won Meikle’s release through a sentencing modification. Connecticut law allows for the trial prosecutor’s office to consider an application for resentencing and decide whether that application should go before a judge. Sentencing modification had been relatively underused and applications tended to be cursory, with many incarcerated people representing themselves, according to Gohara.
The CMIC’s work broke that mold. In the three years during which the clinic represented Meikle, clinic students researched legal avenues for his release, investigated his life history, worked with his dozens of supporters, negotiated with prosecutors, and spent hundreds of hours meeting with Meikle and preparing his petition for release. Clinic students took the lead on all aspects of Meikle’s case. The sentencing modification packet that CMIC’s students prepared for Meikle included hundreds of pages of exhibits, such as his educational certificates and dozens of letters of support from people inside and outside of prison.
Clinic student Jenny Tumas ’21 showed Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law Kate Stith, a former federal prosecutor, the first submission she had made to the court on Meikle’s behalf. Stith said she was astonished by Meikle’s transformation.
“Mr. Meikle had used his time behind bars not only to better his own lot in life, including obtaining a college diploma, but had reached out to others to help better their lives,” Stith said. “These efforts have been powerful and successful, as attested to by the law enforcement, prison, and other officials supporting Mr. Meikle’s petition.”
In a video Stith later submitted to the court, she said: “This is the most compelling case of in-prison rehabilitation that has been submitted to a court to my knowledge, and I believe release of Mr. Meikle is warranted.”
“I squeezed Clyde’s shoulder as tightly as I could while the judge went through his reasoning. We all breathed an indescribable sigh of joy and relief when the judge announced a sentence that would allow Clyde to go home.”
—Professor Miriam Gohara
Support for Meikle was so widespread that those advocating for his sentence modification included the Hartford State’s Attorney’s Office, former Commissioner for the Department of Correction Scott Semple, and Commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection James Rovella. It was Rovella who, as a homicide detective earlier in his career, arrested Meikle in 1994 and once testified against him at trial. Dozens of his Wesleyan professors, teaching assistants, and tutors also advocated for his release and pledged to support his academic and professional pursuits in the future.
Meikle’s impressive record and students’ advocacy persuaded the Hartord State’s Attorney’s office to agree to permit his case to go before a judge.
The experience was a change from what Meikle had experienced before. “Students were more open to really hear what I had to say,” he said. “It felt like more of a relationship than someone coming in trying to impose their will on you.”
In December 2020, Meikle and five Law School students from the clinic appeared at a hearing in Hartford Superior Court. Felisha Miles ’21 and Kate Levien ’21 presented the case before Judge David P. Gold to request a sentence modification for Meikle that reflected his rehabilitation record.
“Mr. Meikle began his sentence as a distressed young man for whom prison was perhaps a predictable conclusion to a chapter of life defined by a lack of institutional support,” said clinic student Frankie Hedgepeth ’22. “Once in prison, he began the process of shedding that self and developing a new one.”
Meikle’s journey toward a historic sentence modification came to fruition on January 15, 2021, when Gold held a second hearing to announce his decision. Gohara was by Meikle’s side at Cheshire when he learned that he would be released 22 years before his original sentence would have permitted.
She recalled the moment. “I squeezed Clyde’s shoulder as tightly as I could while the judge went through his reasoning. Two of Clyde’s biggest supporters, Cheshire’s deputy warden and a correctional lieutenant who worked closely with TRUE, were in the room with us. We all breathed an indescribable sigh of joy and relief when the judge announced a sentence that would allow Clyde to go home.”
The years of work that led to the sentence modification was possible in part, Hedgepeth said, because the relationship between clinic and client remained that of a partnership.
“Before we decided to take any action, we cleared it with Mr. Meikle first,” Hedgepeth said. “Operating this way demonstrated to me the importance of working alongside clients as opposed to simply for them. Of course, we still advocated zealously for him and did everything in our power to ensure he got the outcome he wanted, but the dynamic of our relationship remained non-hierarchical throughout.”
“Whatever comes my way, I’m going to use all the skills that I have to make the most of my life.”
At the January hearing, Gold spoke about how he reached his decision. “For the court to require Mr. Meikle to serve out the remainder of his sentence simply to fulfill the terms of the original judgment would not contribute in any meaningful way toward making him a better person when he is released,” Gold said in granting the petition.
For clinic students, working with Meikle has been an unforgettably meaningful experience and part of their legal education.
“To be able to maintain the level of calm that he did throughout this case, as the contours of his life were being redrawn by people who he had very little ability to influence, requires a level of discipline and mental fortitude that I could not have imagined before meeting him,” Hedgepeth said. “I will carry the lessons I’ve learned from working alongside Mr. Meikle with me for the rest of my life.”
With a fresh chance to plan a new future, Meikle is pursuing a two-year fellowship with the Vera Institute of Justice, during which he hopes to experience a professional setting for the first time in his life. “I am hoping to learn a lot about how to interact with different kinds of people and how to be me amidst different kinds of people,” he said. He has also been teaching high school students two days a week and using his experience at Wesleyan and in the TRUE unit to connect with young people.
“But right now, first and foremost, I’m trying to build a relationship with myself,” he said. And Meikle knows exactly what he wants for the future. “I want to work with young people,” he said. “Whatever comes my way, I’m going to use all the skills that I have to make the most of my life.”