As director of the MSU Civil Rights Clinic, Daniel Manville teaches Michigan State University law students how to defend the civil rights of prisoners. He knows how important this is because he spent four years in prison himself in the 1970s for manslaughter. In prison, he earned two college degrees, then went on to law school after he got out. Manville now dedicates his time to litigate for prisoner’s rights.
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Daniel Manville can tell you exactly how much time he spent in a Michigan prison: three years, four months, 20 days, 22 hours, and 17 minutes. Incarcerated from 1973 to 1976, he focused on studying for classes and earning two undergraduate degrees. He read voraciously; when a friend on the outside offered to lend him law textbooks, Manville read those, too. He taught himself about legal resources and earned a reputation among other inmates as a “jailhouse lawyer.” Fellow inmates would come to him for legal advice regarding their cases, and he would help them through the difficult legal system. Forty-four years later, inmates are still coming to him for legal help. Now, however, he is a bar-certified attorney, law professor, and director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. At the clinic, he trains law students to litigate cases regarding prisoner rights.
When Manville was originally sentenced, the judge told him he had two options: “You can go to prison and waste your life, or you can go to prison and do something constructive with your life.” At the time, the world Manville knew was drug-trafficking, which had led to his incarceration. In prison, he continued selling drugs. However, a few months into his sentence, Manville found himself alone in his cell pondering the meaning of his life. Was dealing drugs the only thing he wanted to accomplish in this life? Surely, there was something else. And he did find something else: education. He made a decision to change the direction of his life and committed himself to learning as much as he could.
Manville believes that education is key to turning one’s life around. When he was incarcerated, he knew two inmates who were barely literate and had less than a high school education. Because of a prison education program, both earned their bachelor’s degrees and are now enjoying successful careers outside prison. Not everyone needs a formal academic education in prison, however. Manville says that learning skills like welding or cooking can go a long way in determining the outside success of inmates. Unfortunately, in recent years Michigan prisons have cut funding for such education programs.
After Manville was released in 1976 and finished law school, the very same judge who had sentenced him to prison wrote a letter of recommendation for his admission into the Michigan state bar. His time inside gives Manville a unique perspective on the criminal justice system and great empathy for inmates. He currently trains law students to litigate on behalf of inmates who have been treated unfairly by the criminal justice system.
For example, in Michigan inmates were not allowed routine dental care for two years after their entrance into the system. If an inmate complained of a toothache during those two years, the only treatment dentists could offer was tooth extraction, even for a minor cavity. In a class action suit brought against the state of Michigan, Manville’s team litigated for better dental coverage and won. The result was routine coverage at every prison in the state starting immediately upon admission. This case is one of many he has fought to protect the rights of prisoners, and he continues to be committed to that fight.
“My prison life is still a part of me and I will take it to my grave. I can’t just walk away from what I did and what prison did to me.”