This past Saturday, mourners filled Temple Beth-El to say goodbye to a woman who had devoted her life to improving the lives of others. Sarah Betsy Fuller ’68, a former professor in the Cornell Law School, died on April 21 after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 58.
Fuller, who was best known for her work as an advocate of prisoners’ rights, graduated from Cornell in 1968. She went on to complete a master’s in sociology at the University of Wisconsin in 1971 and to earn a law degree from Stanford University in 1974.
Over the years, her work included a three-year stint with the U.S. Department of Justice, time with D.N.A. People’s Legal Services, a group located in Arizona that provides legal services to Navajo and Hopi Indians, almost 20 years with the local office of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York as well as teaching at Cornell.
She also spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technical University of El Salvador. While there, she developed a clinical legal program for the University’s law school and organized the first Central American conference of clinical law teachers.
“Betsy really did live out her beliefs in her life — unlike most of us who believe one thing but compromise enough to live comfortably,” said Prof. Glenn G Galbreath, law. “she could have had a very comfortable life, but chose to devote herself to addressing the plight of the underrepresented: Native Americans in South Dakota, the people of El Salvador, low income folks in Tompkins County, prisoners in NY State’s prison system.”
Fuller’s career was widely considered a success.
“Sometimes you can do this work for your whole life and feel like you have nothing to show for it,” said Tom Terrizzi ’69, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. “She had a lot to show for it.”
Fuller is best known for three cases, all of which relate to prisoners’ rights. In one, she fought to grant Native American prisoners in New York State the right to practice their religions while incarcerated.
According to a recent press release from the Cornell News Service, the case began when Gov. George Pataki issued a proclamation “honoring the contributions of Native Americans.”
Fuller than wrote to both him and the Department of Correctional Services to suggest that allowing Native Americans to practice traditional religions while in prison would be a fitting way of showing the state’s gratitude.
When she received no answer from the Governor, she filed suit against the state. The state did not challenge the suit and, after two years of negotiations, an agreement was reached whereby the inmates were allowed to “conduct ceremonies, possess medicine bags and other religious items and make daily prayers in the traditional way.”
As a result of her involvement in this case, Fuller was later invited by the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations, to be part of a delegation giving testimony at a United Nations inquiry into the status of Native Americans. According to Kirk Hughes, the lead plaintiff in the original case, Fuller considered this “one of her most significant accomplishments.”
Another famous and long-standing case that Fuller fought was over strip-search policies in N.Y. prisons. According to Terrizzi, the strip-search procedures were extremely humiliating. The searches were sometimes conducted in front of groups of people, he explained, and the guards would occasionally make inappropriate comments about the inmates’ bodies.
As a result of the lawsuit, an agreement was reached to improve the way in which the searches were conducted. However, according to Terrizzi, Fuller went back to court several times to pursue violations of the agreement. In one such case, guards had videotaped the inmates as they stripped. Fuller had the tapes destroyed, arranged for counseling for the inmates affected, and won cash damages for them as well.
According to Terrizzi, during a period of about ten years, “[Fuller] was the one who really pushed [the DOCS] to live up to their agreement.”
One of the final major cases that Fuller worked on started with a complaint from a prisoner — who was being kept in extended solitary confinement — that he was being fed nothing but bread and water. This case is still being argued, but according to the Cornell News Service press release, Terrizzi pledged that Prisoners’ Legal Services “would work to end the practice [Fuller] uncovered. ‘She lit a fire under us,’ he said.”
In fact, one of the lawyers who is arguing this case is a former student of Fuller’s. Jim Bogin ’84, law, still remembers having classes with Fuller at the Law School, and was a little surprised when he joined Prisoners’ Legal Services and ran into her again.
Bogin’s memories of Fuller support Terrizzi’s description of her as “a tenacious lawyer with a very big heart.” He recalled one incident in which Fuller was taking the deposition from one of her opposition’s witnesses. During the course of the deposition, it came out that it was the witness’s birthday. After everyone took a break for lunch, Fuller returned to the room with a birthday cake.
If the measure of a great life is how many people you have touched, then Betsy Fuller’s life was certainly great. According to Terrizzi, her memorial service was “overflowing” with friends and acquaintances, many of whom were surprised to hear just how much Fuller had been involved in.
“It’s not stuff she would brag about,” Terrizzi said. “But it [was] really major civil rights work.”
Bogin offered perhaps the best tribute to his late teacher and co-worker, saying simply, “We miss her.”
Fuller is survived by her husband, Ronald Fuller, three children and one grandchild, all of Ithaca.
Archived article by Courtney Potts
Sun Staff Writer