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Tulane Women’s Prison Project honored for their work with victims of sexual violence

August 29, 2023 11:15 AM
Alina Hernandez ahernandez4@tulane.edu

WPP team members with a client who was released in 2021 after serving 37 years, 8 months, and 17 days for an act of self-defense against sexual assault. (Photo Credit: WPP)


The Tulane Women’s Prison Project has been named an honoree of the “Champions of Change” Award by the nonprofit Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response (STAR).

STAR is a leading nonprofit dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual trauma, improving systems response, and creating social change to end sexual violence based in Baton Rouge, La.

The organization announced the award in August, noting the WPP’s “outstanding efforts in supporting survivors of sexual assault and trafficking, as well as your commitment to improving systems response, have made a tremendous impact,” according to Morgan Lamandre, President and CEO of STAR.

The WPP joins survivors, nonprofits, advocates, educators, social services organizations and journalists whom STAR will honor in September for their work to support and address the needs of survivors of sexual assault and trafficking. The WPP is a collaboration between the Tulane Domestic Violence Clinic, run by Professor Becki Kondkar, and the Criminal Justice Clinic, run by Professor Katherine Mattes.

“Since its creation, the WPP has been fixing past injustices for women incarcerated for self-defense.  These women who were punished for nothing more than fighting for their lives do not deserve to spend their lives behind bars” said interim law Dean Sally Richardson. 

“I am so proud of the hard work of the Tulane WPP, of Professors Mattes and Kondkar, and all of the WPP team who have worked to right these legal wrongs.  They are true champions for legal change," Richardson added.

The Women’s Prison Project provides legal representation to criminalized survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and trafficking, particularly those who are serving long sentences after killing an abusive partner or trafficker in self-defense, or for having committed crimes in the context of an abusive partner or trafficker’s coercion or duress. The WPP reaches survivors on the fringes of mainstream legal reform movements, addressing gender-based violence, trauma, and exploitation as prevalent pathways to prison.  

Launched in 2020 under the leadership of Professors Kondkar and Mattes, the project has trained 84 third-year Tulane law students - 57 have worked directly with WPP clients on their cases, gaining valuable hands-on legal training during their time in law school.

The Project thus far has won freedom for 10 women, one before her case went to trial. The other nine women who were freed from prison had served a combined 199 years. Most had been sentenced to life without parole after defending themselves against abuse or sexual assault.

In announcing its Champions of Change honorees, the organization called the group “exceptional individuals who have demonstrated unwavering commitment, compassion, and support for sexual assault and trafficking survivors, making a profound impact on their lives and fostering a culture of healing and empowerment.”

The WPP addresses both historic injustice (women incarcerated for decades) and present-day failures (women recently charged or convicted), representing survivors at pre-trial, trial, appeal, post-conviction, pardon, and parole. Its work has shed light on Louisiana’s ubiquitous practice of punishing rather than protecting survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, with cases that span 11 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, and clients from urban, suburban, and rural parishes. 

“It’s an acknowledgment that our clients’ stories are real and that our clients are wrongfully incarcerated,” said WPP Assistant Professor Carlotta Lepingwell on the significance of the award.

In just three years, WPP has received recognition for its work from the American College of Trial Lawyers, the Association of American Law School’s Clinical Legal Education Association, the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Conference on Crimes Against Women.