Davis Polk pro bono client reflects on life after clemency
Davis Polk client Monica Szlekovics was granted clemency in January 2020 after serving 23 years of a 50-to-life sentence, the result of an extensive clemency application and support from leaders of prominent domestic violence and women’s justice organizations throughout New York. Monica – a victim of severe domestic violence – used her time in prison to educate herself, counsel other women, and solidify her commitment to advocating for other victims of domestic violence.
Now almost two years freed, Monica continues to build a new life for herself, which includes working full-time and drawing from her own experiences to support and promote educational opportunities for the incarcerated. Last month she traveled to Denver, Colorado where she represented Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills at the 11th Annual National Conference on Higher Education in Prison. She helped facilitate a workshop focused on re-envisioning the pedagogical structure and aim of higher education in prison communities, with an emphasis on peer-to-peer mentorship and inclusive horizontal coalition building.
Earlier this year, we sat down with Monica to discuss her re-immersion into life outside of prison and her process for moving forward:
Navigating life outside
“I came home to a house full of people,” said Monica, now living in Rochester, NY, with her sister’s family, including five nephews. “They’ve been welcoming and supportive. It really afforded me the time to get acquainted with them in a way I hadn’t been able to because of the distance.” Monica is adjusting to her new day-to-day. Her sister helped her familiarize herself with two decades of technological and cultural changes, from smart phones to cashless grocery shopping. “It was a culture shock,” Monica said. “I can’t even say I’m starting over,” she said. “I’m starting.”
Applying her skills
While incarcerated, Monica gained nearly a decade of valuable experience managing the facility’s college program, in partnership with Marymount Manhattan College – also earning her bachelor’s degree with honors through the college. She built upon that role and now works as a paid program assistant for the facility’s college program, recently planning and executing a two-day conference. She also serves as an advisory committee member for the Survivors Justice Project, housed at Brooklyn Law School, which is a collective of formerly incarcerated women, attorneys, students and activists working together for the release or resentencing of domestic violence survivors. Monica recently graduated from Sanctuary for Families’ Economic Empowerment Program, a rigorous career readiness program, receiving certifications in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. This summer, she is doing a fellowship with the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice.
On the anniversary of Monica’s release, the Davis Polk team hosted a Webex meeting, where many who were instrumental in her clemency celebrated her first year of freedom. The team included Head of Pro Bono Litigation Dara Sheinfeld, associate Jennifer Kalmanides, former associates Peter Bozzo, Jaryn Fields and Brooklynn Moore, and former legal assistants Maya Kapelnikova and Emma Schwartz. Partner Tatiana Martins, counsel Denis McInerney and Special Counsel for Pro Bono Sharon Katz provided guidance. At this joyous event, Monica was joined by the lawyer who prosecuted her two decades before, the current District Attorney of Monroe County and attorneys from the Governor’s Clemency Bureau, who had reviewed her application – all promising her their continued support. During the meeting, Monica had a moving dialogue with her former prosecutor, speaking to him openly about how his words had shaped the way she viewed herself for 20 years, but also how his support for her clemency and belief in her transformation had helped her accept that she was worthy of forgiveness. “Seeing the support I had shifted my perspective about all that had happened,” Monica said. “It was the final piece I needed to move forward.”
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