This spring, BC Law Impact is excited to present guest posts from current students about the factors that drove them to BC Law and the impact the community has had on their lives. Today’s post comes from 2L Hannah Jellinek.
Cheshire Correctional Institution sits atop an uncharacteristically tall hill given the generally flat land surrounding the prison. Perhaps because of this elevation, the long thin driveway, and the large red brick façade, the prison has a haunting and overwhelming presence. The front doors lead to a separate world. One where razor sharp barbed wire sits on top of chainlink fences and seemingly cuts into the bright blue skies and puffy white clouds. One where you see kids running around freely, smiling and laughing, but then realize their obstacle course and hide and seek spots are the long wooden benches of the visitation room. The Cheshire world is separate from the small houses of the town, separate from the run-down basketball courts across the street, separate from what I have previously known outside of the gates.
Once I go through the weekly routine of submitting my license, clearing the metal detector, and gathering the light pink VISITOR pass, I walk out of the waiting room and through the lobby. A bright yellow line on the dark brown floors divides the hallways of Cheshire. It is what separates us from them. The free individuals who can decide their next step, their next meal, their next shower, from those on the other side of the line who decide nothing.
Often when I tell people that I tutor in a maximum-security men’s prison, they ask if I am scared and I tell them no, because when I am working with the men the space feels familiar, like any classroom on a college campus. The mood is light, with smiling and laughter. For three hours each Tuesday morning, the inmates turn their identification cards towards their bodies and sit facing each other, not as violent felons, but as Wesleyan students of Philosophy and Environmental Science.
When I learn of the crimes the students committed – the murders, rapes, child abuse, drug deals – I am disgusted. I think about the ruined lives, the families torn apart. I think of the funeral of my 24-year-old brother, who overdosed on the same drugs that these men have been selling to people struggling with addiction on the streets. Why am I helping them? As my mind becomes lost in these questions, I also reflect on the conversations I have had with these students. Some have serious mental illnesses, which have gone untreated or ignored, and should not be in a maximum-security prison. Others have taken full responsibility for their actions, and are excited to accomplish their individual goals upon release, such as returning to their old neighborhoods and creating mentoring programs for teenagers.
Volunteering for the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan University forced me to consider: what is the individual’s responsibility in crime, and what is reasonably attributed to societal forces, mental illness, and familial factors? The experience shaped my approach, even the very nature of how I think about a criminal charge, and my beliefs and preconceived notions were constantly challenged. As a dual degree JD/MSW student at BC I have continued to be challenged and have been given opportunities to deepen my understanding of the overall criminal justice system.
This past summer I worked as a Rappaport Fellow with the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS), which oversees thirteen public safety agencies in Massachusetts including the State Police, the Parole Board, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. I not only learned how these agencies operate, but also was able to work with the legislative team and see the development of criminal justice related public policy. For example, I saw the Secretary of Public Safety testify in front of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and saw bills such as An Act for Justice Reinvestment (SB791 and HB 2308), An Act Promoting Community Prosperity by Further Reforming Criminal Offender Record Information (HB3084) and An Act to Reduce Criminalization of Poverty (SB777 and HB2359) being heard. Given that so much of my experience had been on the ground level, dealing directly with individuals, EOPSS allowed me to see how government can influence broad, systemic change. I am excited to use my BC Law and Social Work education to shape public policy, to help understand crime through a trauma focused lens, and to help prevent individuals from having to cross that thin line yellow line.