During the winter break of my sophomore year, I buried myself in books, podcasts, and online articles concerning criminal justice reform. In particular, reading Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” and Sister Helen Prejean’s “The Death of Innocents” opened my eyes to the grave injustices taking place within our legal system. As I learned more about our country’s federal and state prisons, police brutality, and mass incarceration, I felt both shock and guilt. As a former intern for several Democratic candidates in Southwest Missouri, I worked on many campaigns that pushed “tough on crime” narratives. Until recently, I had no idea how this way of thinking has quite literally devastated impoverished communities and people of color.
When I was researching Shepherd Internships, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia immediately stood out. I wanted to look into the world of public defense in order to better understand the intersections of urban poverty and crime. Moreover, I wanted to witness the systematic injustices so that I could be a better advocate and ally of those treated unjustly. My eight weeks at Public Defender Service was undoubtedly challenging and gave me a better understanding of these issues. Most important, my summer internship helped me realize the urgency of reform.
The Public Defender Service (PDS) is one of the nation’s premiere public defender offices. PDS is committed to providing “zealous representation” to indigent clients. PDS utilizes an approach known as “holistic” representation, meaning that a team of people including social workers, investigators, attorneys, interns (both undergraduate and law students), and others work together on behalf of clients facing criminal charges. In most instances, the same group of attorneys and investigators work with a client from the time the client first appears in court until the client is acquitted, found guilty or has his or her case dismissed; then another set of PDS attorneys steps in to represent the client on appeal and sometimes post-conviction. Whereas many public defender offices are drastically underfunded, PDS has a privileged amount of resources thanks to monetary support from Congress. As an “intern investigator,” I worked directly under a staff attorney and investigator in the trial division to complete investigative tasks for clients facing Felony 1 (the most serious) charges. From serving subpoenas, canvassing, conducting online research, digging through archives at the DC public library, or meeting with clients, my duties took me across the D.C. metro area, including many low-income neighborhoods.
It was clear from the first day of training at PDS that the job would be demanding. Attorneys and investigators settle for nothing short of quality representation. Within the office, there was a strong sense of purpose and mission. I have never been surrounding by so many social justice-oriented colleagues and peers within a single working environment. For example, after the killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the Dallas officers, the entire office erupted in frustration, grief, and thoughtful discussion. In this way, the PDS atmosphere motivates its employees. As soon as walked through the door, I quickly realized how necessary zealous commitment is in public defense work.
My positivity at PDS was quickly overshadowed by frustration once I began spending more time out in the field. On my third to last day at PDS, my Staff Investigator and I visited the D.C. jail to talk to an inmate who was a potential witness in our client’s case. When my Staff Investigator, and I walked inside, I remarked how warm it was. My Staff Investigator was less surprised. My Staff Investigator then told me about a D.C. inmate who had died at the jail the previous week, some speculated from heat exhaustion. It was later determined the inmate died from pre-existing health conditions and natural causes, but at that time I was in utter shock—how could a jail operate legally without working air conditioning? The D.C. jail is smelly, outdated, and air ventilation is almost nonexistent. The walls lack color. These characteristics aren’t surprising. Jails are not portrayed in popular media as comfortable places to be. However, the D.C. jail has lacked adequate air conditioning for several years, yet no one in D.C. government feels a sense of urgency to create more humane conditions.
While we spoke with the inmate we were visiting, we learned that the visitation room was the only place in the jail with moderate ventilation. As we chatted, the inmate expressed frustration about being locked up. Due to various conflicts of his prison block population, the inmate was in a special form of custody that required the inmate’s hands and feet to be shackled despite having no history of violence or disruption. The inmate described the experience as being chained up “like a dog.” What was most troubling, however, was how the inmate talked about his or her life being over at only 28. The hopelessness in the inmate’s eyes and face were undeniable.
My experience in the D.C. jail that evening demonstrated the lack of humanity within our criminal justice system. Our legal system–from courtrooms, to prosecutor’s offices, to police stations—all too often undermines people’s dignity. Violations of basic rights are justified under the guise of “law and order.” Even acquittal or release from prison does not guarantee a better life. Having any sort of history of being arrested, incarcerated, or stopped by the police for any amount of time has consequences: lost jobs, income, housing, or even one’s life. As the example shows, the physical spaces that constitute this system do not even guarantee humane living conditions. For too many people, this is legalized degradation.
In addition to witnessing this degradation of persons, working at PDS also unveiled how society’s complacency drives mass incarceration. Whether you’re from D.C.’s richest Northwest quadrant, West County St. Louis, or other well-off and relatively safe places, there seems little incentive to think about incarceration or police brutality as a lived experience. Racial and economic privilege oftentimes causes people to think of criminal justice as an abstract space “out there,” only built for lives that deserve to have a place in oppression. Criminals and the legal system only exist in their imagination since police brutality and harsh sentencing does not affect their own families and neighbors. This mindset has facilitated a nonchalant acceptance of the status quo. Although I admire the work of the PDS staff and their dedication, I learned that every individual in this nation must recognize the indignity of oppression taking place within our legal system.
Our society can no longer ignore the experiences of those disenfranchised by our courts. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes “The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” After working at PDS, I will never accept a narrative of justice that valorizes punishment over humanizing those at the greatest margins of society. Although I observed and learned more than I instigated change this summer, I am now equipped with better insight into the obstructions to justice and dignity that occur in our criminal justice system. I am not sure if I will pursue a career in law or public defense. Regardless, I realize now the harms of accepting a paradigm of justice that succumbs to fear and control over love and compassion. The lessons I was given this summer have, no doubt, shaped me into a better advocate for those caught in our legal system. I will be carrying my summer at PDS with me into whichever future career path I choose and certainly into my future endeavors for social justice.
 Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: New Press, 2011. Print.