Fellowship provides opportunities to help remedy problems of incarceration
Before coming to law school, I would have never imagined myself standing in the cold, cement-block labyrinth of a federal prison. But my interest in public service led me to the Florida Bar Foundation Public Interest Law Fellowship, and through that program I was placed at Florida Institutional Legal Services, Inc. (FILS), a private non-profit firm specializing in defending the rights for those who are institutionalized or incarcerated across Florida.
At FILS, I was lucky to have many opportunities to explore my interests and expand my outlook by focusing on prisoners, a group that society so often forgets about and sometimes purposely ignores. When asked, by family or classmates, what benefit I saw to society by “defending convicts and criminals,” I used their criticism as an opportunity to inform them about a few of the major problems faced by inmates. I made sure to stress that it may be prudent to rethink our beliefs about judging people’s worth as human beings based on one mistake or lapse in judgment.
Meeting prisoners and attempting to help them with their problems (including allegations of overcrowded conditions, prolonged solitary confinement over minor disciplinary infractions, problems with prison officials, fights with other prisoners, and lack of basic, necessary medical care to name a few) was a powerful balancing force on my conscience and a constant reminder to stop making assumptions about people based on the crimes for which they were convicted. During my time working at FILS, I had the opportunity to interview several inmates and travel across the state to visit them at their institutions. The exposure to the inmates, our clients, in the prison environment offered a clearer understanding of the bigger picture and the subtleties of prison society. I quickly came to the realization that the prison walls encased a completely alternate reality from the one I was accustomed to.
I was able to help with current litigation by performing legal research on varied topics. A few research subjects involved complex federal legislation like the Prison Litigation Reform Act; Section 1983 Claims against state officials; Bivens actions against federal officials; and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which severely limits inmates’ Constitutional claims against prison officials via habeas corpus petition). I got to apply what I learned in Constitutional Law and Federal Courts classes, combining the real-world approach to bring perspective to issues covered in law school classes.
I’m extremely thankful for the experience I gained during my time at FILS and the mentorship of the firm’s attorneys and staff. My fellowship cemented my commitment to practice public interest law at the first possible opportunity upon graduation. Eventually, I want to start my own non-profit organization that provides a one-stop-shop for legal, medical/mental health, substance abuse and social work services of poverty-stricken Americans. My time at FILS gave me a first-hand glimpse at the workings of race, class and gender divisions among incarcerated populations. It also was important to expand my view on the effects that one person’s incarceration has on those around them – loved ones, job prospects and friends — as well.
Nicole Safker is a 2011-12 Public Interest Law Fellow. The Public Interest Law Fellowship Program is funded by the Florida Bar Foundation to promote public interest law, and offered at the Levin College of Law by the Center for Governmental Responsibility.