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Interim prisoners: Why law schools should go on prison tours

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Prison

This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to intern for the State of Connecticut’s Attorney General’s Office. One of the perks that comes with this opportunity, other than the endless learning opportunities and seminars, is the prison tour.

Throughout the course of the internship, we as interns have had the ability to visit a variety of Connecticut’s correctional facilities. Students have the chance to meet the warden and staff and to tour the building. While we have minimal to no interaction with the prisoners, we are given an opportunity to see their inner operations. This brings me to the main topic of the post – why schools should invest in prison tours.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: no way am I voluntarily going to jail! But that’s the thing, if we don’t go, who’s going to check on the people in there?

Participating in a prison tour is an invaluable experience for students who want to practice law, especially so for students who want to practice in our criminal justice system. You have nothing to lose by going to prison for a few hours – especially if your future job will consist of confining people to it or desperately trying to keep people out of it.

There are two major reasons why schools should invest in having prison tours of their state facilities. First, creating a better bond between the legal system and prison system might help foster changes for both systems that brings awareness and aid to both prisoners and guards. Second, we as potential lawyers need to fully understand the impact of our actions and the ramifications of our decisions.

Yes, prison is where we put people once they break the law. But, as has been proven time and again, prison is also where we’ve put people who’ve been wrongly accused.

Your average person has never seen the inside of one of our correctional facility – and I mean all the way inside the facility. We ask the most extraordinary of people to voluntarily go to prison as well just to keep “the bad guys” inside. At the same time, we confine people to these buildings for years on end, and sometimes their natural life, and say to them “you cannot complain because this is your fault.” Then we have the nerve to be surprised when something goes wrong.

Yet, we as attorneys don’t go inside unless we have a case or a client, and still, on most cases, we don’t see past the visitors’ rooms. Yet, we hear countless stories of prisons being subpar, people living in unconstitutional conditions, and horror stories of deaths that have occurred, not because of the death penalty but because no one was looking.

So my question is how do we fight something we’ve never seen? How do you fight for something you’ve never experienced? How do you know an injustice has occurred when you are deaf to its cries and pleas? How are we effective as lawyers when we are so above those we claim to represent? Having a presence in correction facilities would help right many of the wrongs before they rise to the level of litigation.

It seems as if we are constantly fighting battles from the past; they say hindsight is 20/20, but why do we have to be blind now? Having prison tours would expose lawyers, and potential lawyers, to the prison system early, allowing us to see the consequences of our actions and see the conditions of our clients and adversaries. Allowing lawyers to visit these facilities would show the difference between reality and TV. Our presence would relieve some of its mystery and may allow a reduction in its stigma, thus providing a greater incentive to to protect the rights of those who all these facilities house.

Education about the prison system may be a deterrent for those who operate on the wrong side of the law. But on few occasions have attorneys realized that their actions may land themselves in jail. Maybe if they were able to see the actions that they have on others maybe they would operate on the right side of the ethical dilemma. Or, for future lawyers who want to become prosecutors or criminal defense lawyers, being able to go into prison may prevent a learning opportunity. Going to jail for educational purposes may help alleviate some of the future stress of entering an unfamiliar environment, which may result in an inability to properly negotiate or advocate and make you look incompetent.

Further, education about the system may facilitate opportunities for residents’ voices to be heard because the punishment is the restriction of freedom, not the loss of human decency. Recently I heard a story about an inmate who was denied pants by a Louisville jail. Not only was she refused pants, but she was refused sanitary products and was brought to a court room in that condition.

There have been other horrific stories about female correctional facilities that deny women sanitary products. These issues are not regulated to one state or one area. They are commonplace among our nation.

New York, on the other hand, has been well aware of their many issues with their health care provider at Rikers Island. Yet where was the legal system acting on behalf of prisoners demanding the termination of the contract or that the company provide the necessary, and constitutionally required, health care?

Having these educational tours would create a sense of responsibility for those who are doing their rounds and accountability for those who are aren’t providing adequate care for those in their charge. Alternatively, it would be a chance for others to show that they are doing what they are supposed to in how they handle their prisons and offer insight to others. An in-depth look at how prison truly affects someone’s life will make it so lawyers wont be saying “hey, I tried” when – in fact – no, they didn’t. Facing their actions will allow lawyers to look twice at the evidence and examine their case before they convict innocent people.

Ultimately, this is not to advocate going easy on potential defendants because prison is bad. This is merely the opinion of a law student who hopes that if we start to acknowledge the ramifications, then maybe we can create solutions and changes. Because while we believe in justice and that the penalty must fit the crime, we as a society do not believe that includes embarrassment, ridicule, and discrimination.

And while lady Themis is blind, we do not have to be.

Jasmine Carnegie Jasmine S. Carnegie is the First Circuit Governor of the ABA Law Student Division and a third-year law student at the University of Massachusetts School of Law-Dartmouth. She is a lifelong Connecticut resident with a Bachelor of Arts for Criminal Justice from the University of Bridgeport. She is the current Vice President of the Criminal Law Society and treasurer of OUTLaw and the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association. She is a staunch believer in the promotion of diversity and the inclusion of all.