This experience has been so many things for me in so many different ways, but in this post I will attempt to convey as best I can some of my main takeaways from the summer. This internship has opened my eyes in ways I could have imagined, but never expected.
Working with Restore Justice was my first formal experience with an internship in an established organization. The biggest thing that struck me right away was the passion and pride that these individuals had for the work that they do. Criminal justice reform is not a very popular public issue, especially in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Corrections is notoriously non-compliant and disorganized, and does not take kindly to groups that want to hold it accountable. Additionally, the population group that we work with is one that historically has been brushed under the rug. Because of the stigma attached to individuals who are incarcerated, coupled with the demographics of incarcerated persons leaning more towards people of color and people of lower socio-economic status, it is very easy for the public to be unsympathetic. Many think that these people have given up their chance to be treated with dignity and respect, and that they made the choice to become marked as a criminal and thus don’t deserve sympathy.
It is also very easy for people to choose to ignore the violations of rights that occur in prisons, both before, during, and after sentencing and incarceration. Simply put, people don’t care if it doesn’t affect them. This allows a great majority of individuals to turn a blind eye to what is happening, and the conceptualization of prisons as punitive instead of rehabilitative further drives this lack of empathy that the public expresses. Because of this, there is very limited opportunity to get enough public traction as well as legislative support to pass the policies that we want to see passed.
Against these odds and many more, the people at Restore Justice continue to see hope. They have helped me learn to celebrate any victory, no matter how small, because they see the bigger picture. They have also helped me understand the importance of narrowing focus in passing policy, but also in any work around social justice. Time and time again, I have heard my coworkers express the sentiment that, although they want to help everyone right now, they understand that it is more important to fight one step at a time, and that doing anything for even one person makes a world of a difference.
I am incredibly grateful to have been introduced to this community of people, and have met some truly incredible individuals. Being able to speak with men that have been incarcerated, are currently incarcerated, and family members of those men has been eye-opening and humbling. The hope that they retain in the face of being tossed aside by society and the passion they have for helping others that have been in their situation is astounding. It has made me a better person, helped me to see that there is a good in all of us, and that nobody should be defined by the worst mistake they have made.
I have made some incredibly meaningful connections and had truly insightful conversations. I have appreciated this experience in many ways, but most of all for the opportunity it has provided me to form my own understanding of this complex issue and all the players involved. Growing up with a father who works for the Bureau of Prisons in the federal system has given me one kind of narrative about the criminal justice system in the United States, and that narrative is extremely complicated in and of itself. But this internship experience has given me another narrative and opened up even more avenues and possible belief systems for me. I have been able to take each piece of information I have gathered and formulate my own thoughts and opinions on this incredibly complex issue.
Although I still have questions to explore and situations to unpack, this internship experience has given me clarity on one important idea: we are all people, and no matter what choices we make, we all have the potential to see the good in each other. We are all humans and we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s the bottom line. Thank you to Restore Justice Illinois for giving me this opportunity, and more importantly, for fostering relationships that I will take with me the rest of my life.