Almost every case Harvard Law students read in their 1L Criminal Law class ends the same way: someone goes to prison, and we turn the page. But for the defendant, and for society, the conviction and sentencing are only the beginning of the story. By participating in the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), Harvard Law students have a unique opportunity to confront the brutal reality that lies behind the cases they read in Criminal Law.
I worked as a student attorney at PLAP during my 1L summer. After spending the spring semester in Criminal Law listening to my fellow students impose hypothetical prison sentences on the defendants in our casebook, I was grateful for the chance to see what the inside of a prison actually looked and felt like.
I expected prison to be a scary place. What I found out is that the truly scary thing about visiting a prison is not the threat of physical violence, but the contemplation of what it must be like to be trapped inside one for years.
Incarcerated people are required to obey every order they are given, instantly and without question. Every moment of their lives is regulated and watched, and if they bridle for even a second at the thousandth order, they are punished further.
Imagine spending your entire life at the DMV. For incarcerated people, simply getting through the day requires navigating an elaborate bureaucracy. Living that way changes people. By depriving them of any responsibility other than absolute submission to authority, prisons seem almost designed to make incarcerated people dependent and incapable of living autonomously.
American society values freedom, individuality, and headstrong risk-taking. In our prisons, we demand that incarcerated people live in a way totally antithetical to those values. One moment of human individuality can lead to months in solitary confinement.
Despite these hardships, the incarcerated people that I met constantly surprised me with their humor, intelligence, thoughtfulness and ability to endure. In Criminal Law, my classmates would often speak passionately about the need to punish these people for the crimes they had committed. Listening to my clients tell stories of the small, daily indignities they suffered, I learned what that punishment really meant.
The questions that I asked myself after working with incarcerated people were very different from those that we spent most of our time answering in Criminal Law. Thinking about how long a sentence is necessary to deter a certain type of behavior seemed absurd after being inside of a prison. I found myself wondering whether prisons were really necessary at all. What do we get in exchange for such unbelievable suffering and waste of human potential? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to believe it’s worth it.
Every Harvard Law student takes Criminal Law, despite the fact that few of us will ever practice it. According to Harvard and the American Bar Association, new lawyers have a responsibility to learn something about the criminal justice system. Truly understanding the doctrines and policies of criminal law requires understanding what it means to be incarcerated, and visiting a prison and representing an incarcerated person is a step towards that.
Going to prison as a Harvard Law student is a humbling experience. I felt embarrassment and shame telling my clients that I went to Harvard. The contrast between my incredible privilege and their crushing loss of opportunity was profound. I realized that, as a lawyer, I would become part of the system that put these people there.
My advice to my fellow students is this: go to prison. If we are going to be part of a legal system that incarcerates millions of our fellow citizens we have a responsibility to understand what that really means.
Interested in joining PLAP? Attend new member training Sunday, September 22 from 2-4pm in WCC 1010 or Tuesday, September 24 from 7-9pm in WCC 2009. Email PLAPdirectors@gmail.com for more info.