Toiling in the Fields of Redemption
Offering comfort—legal and otherwise—to prisoners with nowhere else to turn
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Those words, written by noted death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson ’85, were very much on the mind of Katie Wozencroft ’09 this summer, when she made the four-hour drive from Atlanta to an Alabama prison where condemned prisoners are executed. “Going to death row,” says Wozencroft, who spent the summer working at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, “you realize that they’re not necessarily bad people, they’re not necessarily good people. They’re people.”
Since the center’s founding in 1976, its legal staff has worked primarily in Georgia and Alabama, monitoring prison conditions and pursuing litigation to improve them. Over the years, the center’s lawyers have filed cases on overcrowding, excessive punishment methods and denial of proper medical care, among other prisoner-rights issues. They also represent defendants—especially those facing the death penalty—who otherwise wouldn’t have legal counsel. (Alabama, like other Southern states including Texas and Mississippi, has no statewide public defender system.) With only 10 lawyers on staff (William Montross ’94 and Lauren Sudeall ’05 are two of them), the center relies heavily on interns. Last summer, there were 13 of them, including Wozencroft, Sarah Belton ’09, Jacob Howard ’09 and Dominique Winters ’10.
“At the center they encourage you to do all the work the attorneys do—heavily supervised, with lots of feedback,” says Howard. “Interns have the opportunity to do investigations, write drafts of legal materials that will be filed and build cases for parole.” With all that responsibility comes pressure, says Wozencroft, “but it’s amazing to be able to do work that really affects people.”
The center is divided into a civil unit and a death penalty unit, and interns get a chance to work in both. In the death penalty unit, the center’s lawyers handle appeals for indigent defendants, taking on cases when they believe that a client was wrongly convicted, or that flaws in the judicial process led to a death sentence rather than one of life without parole. For this latter group, says Winters, “we aren’t trying to get them released. Some don’t even want to be released because they know they’ve done wrong. They were given a terrible life and they made bad choices as a result of the life that was dealt to them.”
When the interns visit their clients on death row, they go not only to build their cases but also just to help them pass the time. The visits tend to be more low-key than one might imagine, says Howard. “Some just want to talk about recent sports games and things that are going on in the news. One of the things you learn meeting with death row inmates is that sometimes it is very difficult to see the facts of the crime in the person you meet.”
Lawyers and interns in the civil unit interview inmates about problems in the prisons and then use the information they’ve gathered to push for reform—a process that tends to move much more quickly than the death penalty appeals. Wozencroft went to a Georgia prison to interview incarcerated women who weren’t getting proper treatment for cancer. “We were able to call the state and say, ‘We know what’s going on, it’s not OK, and you need to change it.’ And they did.”
The interns also represented Alabama prisoners seeking parole. In that state, prisoners generally aren’t allowed to appear before the parole board; they can either write a letter stating their case (which is not a realistic option for many of them) or rely on someone else to appear for them. For the interns, that means developing arguments justifying release, coming up with post-release plans for prisoners’ re-entry into their communities and arguing cases in front of the parole board. “Twice this summer the parole board told an intern that they wouldn’t have paroled the prisoner if the intern hadn’t been here to make his case,” says Howard.
Howard and Winters already knew before their summer at the Southern Center that they wanted to work in the criminal justice system. Howard is now executive director of HLS’s Prison Legal Assistance Project, and next year he will clerk for a judge in Montgomery, Ala. Winters’ resolve to become a public defender specializing in capital cases has only been strengthened by the work she did at the center. “It’s amazing to see how many innocent people can be placed in jail or left in jail just because there’s not a smooth-running system,” she says. “If you want to see the flaws in the criminal justice system, come work at a place like the center. I think it will be an eye-opener.”
Wozencroft, by contrast, was planning on a career in politics. But she was drawn to the internship after taking a prison law class with Sharon Dolovich ’98, a visiting professor from UCLA School of Law, and the summer’s experience has changed her plans. “Working in government, it’s so hard to get things done,” she says. “But at the Southern Center I got to make improvements in people’s lives every day. You’re an advocate when you’re at work and when you go home. Your work there becomes who you are.”
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