I wish someone had told me the things I’m telling my young staff before law school and before becoming a lawyer. My career as a lawyer, erratic at best, would have been much different.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Parrish Collins.
Parrish Collins is a civil rights attorney based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After graduating with honors from Duke University School of Law, Parrish has been practicing law and in early 2017, Collins turned his attention to prison and jail medical negligence. Since that time, his firm, Collins and Collins, P.C., has spent tens of thousands of hours investigating prison and jail medical neglect.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have been a lawyer, on and off, since 1989. I started in corporate oil and gas but didn’t love it and didn’t care much for corporate life or law, so I left the law for a while. Upon returning to law, I opened my own practice. I was basically taking whatever walked through the door, which was primarily family law and criminal defense. However, I learned pretty quickly I did not want to be a family law attorney for longer than necessary to keep my firm going and I waded into personal injury law. I did like criminal defense but it is a bit of a grind getting cases and getting paid. Over the years, I did a variety of personal injury matters including medical malpractice. When Jeff Sessions was appointed US Attorney, I decided that I needed to at least take a couple of civil rights cases as a matter of civic duty. I landed on prison medical cases which have become an obsession. Since filing our first case in February 2018, we have filed around 60 cases with many more to come. Sadly, we have had to institute strict evaluation criteria due to the scope of medical neglect and abuse in New Mexico (NM) prisons and jails. For a couple of years now, we have had to limit cases we take on for litigation to those involving at least 2 weeks in the hospital. In the last several months, we have been forced to limit our litigation cases to those involving death.
Even for those prisoners that we can’t take on in litigation, we do what we can to help. We advise them on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requirements which are monstrous, grotesque and unfair to prisoners. In fact, I think it is safe to say that more than anything else the PLRA has led to all of the atrocities that we hear and read about regarding prisoners. In addition, we send out notices of claims to protect the prisoners’ right to sue in the future. Finally, we try to get them connected with reentry services because NM prisons and jails offer virtually zero reentry services. In all honesty, I think this is probably by design as successful probation and parole are not good for the prison business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
We have talked to probably over 1000 prisoners and their families since starting this work. When COVID started, I went to visit a client under the custody of the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) in early March 2020. I like and enjoy talking with the correctional officers and on this occasion, my escort to the medical unit was a young officer. I did not see any masks or hand sanitizer as I entered and I asked him what NMCD was doing about COVID. He indicated that they had just had a meeting about it and that COVID was a joke and they were not doing anything. My client had a massive sacral pressure ulcer for which I was there to photograph to monitor healing. They had stopped allowing me in and set up a make-shift bed in a sally port (double locked security doors) next to the attorney visitation room. Nobody was wearing masks or gloves, including the medical personnel, as I took pictures.
Following my visit, I sent a Notice of Claims to NMCD and cc’d a number of parties including the governor. I then sent the letter to a reporter who published it. Later, I learned that one prison facility from which we had received many calls on medical abuse and neglect was taking no precautions to protect the prisoners in custody. I sent a second letter, again forwarding it to the press. Both letters were published. I assume somebody within NMCD took offense and someone at the largest facility in the state posted a couple of flyers saying that our firm was 1. Distributing COVID checks to prisoners and 2. Helping get them out on compassionate medical release. This resulted in hundreds of calls to the firm and we talked to every single prisoner and/or family member. From those conversations, we took on many of the cases for evaluation and filed lawsuits on quite a few. This was the best marketing ever for my firm, for which I must tip my hat to NMCD.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made a lot of mistakes. Among the first, after I started my own firm, was going to get some documents from a judge’s secretary. I had on a sports coat and dress pants but no tie. The judge heard me speaking with his secretary and called me into his office. I don’t remember the conversation other than the fact that he told me if I ever came into his office again without a tie, he would hold me in contempt and have me taken into custody. Other than that, there’s not much funny about screwing up in court.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I’m not sure yet. NMCD has shown no willingness to improve and no willingness to select their medical contractors more carefully or exercise any authority or control over the contractors once they begin operations at NMCD facilities. However, we have helped a lot of prisoners and their families which means a lot to me and our entire staff.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of our clients had a 23-year-old son who died by suicide in the custody of NMCD while in solitary. I accompanied her to the legislative hearings on solitary reform where she testified. The ACLU and other groups had been working on solitary reform for many years. Her testimony was instrumental in the passage of a solitary reform bill for which she received the highest ACLU civilian award.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are many things they could do but they do not seem inclined to do since politicians, and society on the whole, do not seem to have much compassion for prisoners. Here is a short list of things that would immediately improve the health of prisoners and save the country untold billions of dollars:
- Eliminate qualified immunity for prisons and their medical contractors under state law for prison medical abuse and neglect.
- Eliminate qualified immunity for governmentally run prisons under federal law for prison medical abuse and neglect.
- Eliminate or greatly curtail the Prison Litigation Reform Act which was based on false premises and acts as a bar to court for most prisoner medical abuse and neglect lawsuits.
- General Objectives:
- Improve nutrition
- Improve medical care
- Improve mental health services
- Improve reentry programming and other programming for prisoners.
As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. The plain fact is that the health and safety of both guards and inmates is put at risk when you have countless sick, malnourished, and bored inmates. That is the reality of New Mexico Prisons and Jails and probably the great majority of other prisons and jails around the country.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I haven’t thought much about it but I personally try to lead by example. I’m the first one in and the last one out of the office with few exceptions. I love our clients, as does our staff. I do not like corporate or institutional bullies preying on the weak, poor, sick, and mentally ill, which is our client base. Our young staff feels the same. I’m very passionate about the work we are doing, and honestly, I have not had that passion for law in the past. I think that passion wears off on our already passionate young staff. Finally, I do my best to meet the career and educational goals of our staff. I truly want them to do well in their careers. I hope that it is in civil rights and with our firm, but my hope and intent is that they will be set up for success wherever they land.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone had told me the things I’m telling my young staff before law school and before becoming a lawyer. My career as a lawyer, erratic at best, would have been much different. I wish also that someone had told me that not only can you do good as a civil rights attorney, but you can also make money. This is actually the opposite of what you hear from attorneys and far too many lawyers of all ages buy into it. Finally, I wish I had been taught the things I learned in the Trial Lawyers College in law school or soon after. I did not go to Trial Lawyers College until I was 60 but it changed everything about how I view trial and litigation. I am 60 now but feel like I’m right out of law school. At this point, my biggest regret is that I only have another 20–25 years to make a difference through our civil rights work.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My dream is to get a non-profit going that follows the laboratory for young aspiring civil rights lawyers that we have established at our small firm. The goal would be to create a pipeline for young aspiring civil rights lawyers by providing real hands-on civil rights litigation experience for law students and young people headed to law school. Those entering law school know as much or more about both litigation and civil rights as the great majority of their professors. Law clerks go into their first jobs (hopefully in civil rights litigation) with knowledge and experience to take a civil rights case from the first phone call with a client or family to verdict. In doing this, passion is fueled for helping those that very few others, including lawyers, are willing to help.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I like Hunter S. Thompson’s quote, “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride.” It’s Hunter S. Thompson so there is more to it, but I like the idea of going all in and then rolling with the consequences, with some bad but more good. That’s very much what I’ve done in jumping into prison medical abuse with both feet and trusting it’s going to work out, and it has so far.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I have two actually: Barack and Michelle Obama. I wish I could be 10% as intelligent, compassionate, calm, and cool under fire as they both are.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We have most of our filed prison medical cases on our website. I update the page regularly and there are 6 that have been filed since the last update. There will be many more to come until NM prisons/jails and their medical contractors end the medical abuse and cruelties that occur daily as of now.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Parrish Collins of Collins & Collins Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.