An Intern’s Perspective

By Leila Bijan, Washington Lawyers’ Committee, Prisoners’ Rights Intern, Fall 2014

Before beginning my internship at the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, the issue of injustice within the American prison system was something I was never really exposed to. As a political science student and as a volunteer for various social justice organizations, I had thought I was pretty familiar with the forms of injustice that exist in our country. But the violation of prisoners’ civil rights was a topic I had never thought about. It wasn’t that I thought prison was a great place with fair policies and a commitment to upholding civil rights, but that the topic of prison conditions was sadly so far out of my line of sight to even consider.

Unfortunately, the issue of prisoners’ rights is widely ignored by most of our society. But it isn’t necessarily a willful ignorance. These problems exist in the far corners of our peripheral vision, and in a side of the world that many of us have no connection to. How are we to recognize this major breach in civil rights if we don’t have family members or friends behind bars to tell us about it? There are no commercials during prime time television urging us to donate to prisoners’ rights organizations. There are no montages of the faces of prisoners who have been horrifically wronged by our nation’s prison system. National news does not cover the realities of the conditions they face. We tend to not think about our incarcerated citizens, and so we don’t question if they are being treated well, or actually receiving a fair punishment for their crimes.

Working at the D.C. Prisoners’ Project brought me face to face with the harsh reality of these questions. Letter after letter, phone call after phone call, my heart was broken hearing about the horrific things happening behind prison walls: grossly inadequate medical care, abusive staff members, and a general culture of neglect. Some days I couldn’t stomach it, and that always felt selfish because someone out there was actually living it. Someone was enduring it.

Every time I contacted the Federal Bureau of Prisons, seeking answers and help for our clients who had been gravely mistreated, I was only met with bureaucratic red tape. I was hard pressed to find any BOP employee who was willing to help me help the very people they were responsible for. I was repeatedly shocked and disappointed that this federal entity was shirking such a major responsibility. Thankfully, the advocacy and litigation tirelessly pursued by organizations like the D.C. Prisoners’ Project helps cut through the red tape and bring more public awareness of the realities of prison conditions.

While working at the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, I was exposed to some very ugly truths about the prison conditions in this country. I learned about things I would have never believed could occur in America. Though these truths were often disturbing and horrific, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have learned them and to have had my eyes opened by my supervisors and colleagues.

With my eyes now opened, I looked around the D.C. Prisoners’ Project and saw only people dedicated to fighting against these civil rights violations and bringing justice to a marginalized group in desperate need of it. I applaud the D.C. Prisoners’ Project for their tireless efforts and many successes in correcting a grave civil injustice.

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Leila Bijan interned with D.C. Prisoners' Project during the fall semester. She is an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego. She plans to go to law school and pursue a career in social justice.

 

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