Texas State alumna Dr. Terri Leclerq didn’t consider herself an activist when she heard about the torture techniques being taught inside the U.S. Army School of the Americas, but she felt compelled to do something about it. In 1998, she and her daughter flew to Fort Benning, Georgia to join four hundred and sixty-four other people to peacefully protest. “We filed in two by two, walked into an open army post, and were arrested for trespassing on a military installation,” says Dr. Leclerq. Sixteen of them, not including Dr. Leclerq or her daughter, were sentenced to six months in a federal penitentiary.
Letters from those imprisoned described inhumane conditions, including denied access to medication and punishment by being fed a diet of “green loaf,” a mix of vegetables and food scraps that met the minimum dietary requirements while being nearly inedible. When Dr. Leclerq, a professor of Legal Writing at UT in Austin, read these letters, she decided to write a Law Review article to expose these injustices. She spent years studying the Prison Litigation Reform Act and trying to understand the cases that litigated it. Upon its publication, she realized that people who taught Criminal Law already knew about the issues in prison litigation. Her article wasn’t helping those who needed it most.
To reach that ignored audience, she decided to cut her forty-page legal article down to a more accessible graphic novel. “I turned it into a graphic novel to teach the inmates. They’re the ones who needed to know this stuff,” she says. However, this decision posed a new challenge: Dr. Leclerq had little idea what a graphic novel was, let alone how to create one. Fueled by her conviction that she could change the world, one she realized during her time on the Student Senate while earning her undergraduate degree at Texas State, she set out on a decade-long project to create what would eventually become Prison Grievances.
First, she had to determine what exactly a graphic novel was, and then she enlisted the help of a student at LBJ to learn how to format one like a screenplay. After it was written, there was the issue of finding and paying an artist to do the artwork, and then a letterer to write letters in the speech and thought bubbles. When all of this was done, she discovered that publishers were uninterested in buying it, and so Dr. Leclerq also had to learn about self-publishing. Her friend offered to buy a copy for every prison library in Texas, and then the Texas Board of Criminal Justices had the book banned from prison libraries. “That was the lowest point, for me,” says Dr. Leclerq. “Their own authorities had helped me with the book.”
The finished product is a graphic novel titled Prison Grievances, a handbook for prisoners to navigate the grievance process. The novel follows a no-nonsense pro-bono lawyer named Mr. Dibs—an acronym for “don’t be stupid”—as he enters prisons to teach inmates about their rights while incarcerated. It also teaches them how to file grievances, which are complaints against unjust treatment of prisoners by the prison system; and warns against filing excessive or petty grievances. By doing this, it empowers inmates to have their problems properly addressed rather than overlooked due to a litigation error.
By offering this power, the novel has impacted many prisoners who have read and used it. In Dr. Leclerq’s office, there are plastic tubs crammed full of mail from inmates, and more mail comes in every day. Some of these people write to express their gratitude, while some write to express confusion as to why their grievance got rejected by the system. Dr. Leclerq replies to them, explaining what went wrong with their grievance. “Sometimes it’s too scattered,” says Dr. Leclerq. “And sometimes it’s a perfect grievance and they just got screwed.”
For the book, Dr. Leclerq has been awarded the 2018 Golden Pen Award, which honors those who make a significant advancement in Legal Writing. She is the first activist to win the award and hopes to represent fellow activists working in her field. Although her career has included many accolades and important publications, this one holds special significance. “We all need to do something about injustice,” she says. “This book was my attempt to do something.”
Moving forward, Dr. Leclerq has been asked by the Texas Juvenile Justice System to put together a book like Prison Grievances for children in the JJS. She’s excited that people understand “they need to change their approach to educating people who need it, to find a way to reach them without letting the legalese get in the way of the message.” She encourages everyone to use their voices to rectify injustices in the world, through whatever means available, to make a positive impact.
Dr. Terri Leclerq received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Texas State University and is a founder and active member of the Donor and Alumni Advisory Council for the Department of English at Texas State. The council works to create a bond between the English Department’s faculty, students, alumna, and donors. Dr. Leclerq offers insight into the legal community’s expectations for the English Department and its students.
— Gloria Russell, English major