Thinking beyond the confines of your house and your own situation can be difficult to do when in quarantine, but some Gonzaga School of Law students are doing just that.
Before Washington Gov. Jay Inslee enacted the stay-at-home order, students participated in Gonzaga Law in Action (GLA) over spring break. They conducted research with Columbia Legal Services in Seattle that focused on a variety of issues including the potential impact of COVID-19 on mass incarceration. While this trip happened before quarantine officially began, participants are continuing to think about the work they did and the people they affected.
“We were in Seattle during the last week before the shelter-in-place order, so it was during the COVID-19 build up and panic in Seattle. In spite of this, the amazing attorneys at Columbia Legal Services continued to provide us with projects, education and training,” said Kathryn Lucido, a law school student in her second year.
The program itself focused on issues of mass incarceration, meaning from the first day the students were assigned to different projects that dealt with problems within prisons statewide. Israel Carranza, another second-year law student, conducted research on the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the combating of forced labor in prisons.
“The overall theme was looking at the possibility of whether incarcerated people have the ability to organize a union,” Carranza said. “It all comes down to whether incarcerated people are considered employees and I think in the research we did, there might be a possibility that people that are forced to work can ask for better wages.”
The work being done surrounding this issue has been ongoing for years. Even so, he said, the passion in the supervising attorney’s voices was unwavering.
“I was really drawn to not only their energy and who they are as people, but the work [Columbia Legal Services] is doing on mass incarceration and immigrant rights,” said Bailey Pahang, a second-year law student.
Pahang used to be a middle school teacher, but seeing the injustices faced by her students daily pushed her to take a systemic approach to educational inequity.
“We have a Eurocentric model of education that is essentially structured to only benefit a certain group of people,” she said. “The students I was teaching didn’t fall into that group. So, for me, it was absolutely heartbreaking.”
GLA peaked Pahang’s interest as she sees the connection between mass incarceration and education work. It is important to have a firm understanding of the criminal justice system because it will help her combat the school-to-prison pipeline.
During GLA, one of Pahang’s projects focused on access to medically assisted treatments (MAT) given to people with substance abuse disorders who are incarcerated. Many, she said, are experiencing withdrawal symptoms so extreme they are dying.
“It all goes back to this inhumane treatment of people who are incarcerated,” Pahang said. “In some facilities they are just giving people a Gatorade and saying, ‘please deal with it.’”
Through the research conducted, they found that Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Washington, has the most robust protections for people suffering withdrawal from substance abuse disorders. This only came about, however, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued them for their lack of protections, she said.
“The goal is that more facilities will start implementing these MAT programs and model what Whatcom County has going on,” Pahang said. “The hard part is that the implementation takes forever, and a lot of facilities are not aware of the law. So, the research lays down the foundation to take action and make people aware of the law and aware of the expectations of them.”
While these are issues being faced by the majority of incarcerated individuals, the impact is disproportionate to people of color, Lucido said.
“The United States’ long history with racial discrimination also plays an unfortunate role in mass incarceration; people of color are incarcerated at much higher rates than white people,” she said. “Most people in prison are people who have faced systemic disadvantages throughout their lives and made a mistake that landed them in prison.”
That being said, it's important to remember that issues around mass incarceration exist everywhere in the United States, Lucido said, and vulnerable communities are impacted the most.
“The more people that are interested in helping those who don’t have a seat at the table, the better off we will be as a society,” Carranza said. “The greatness of society is determined not by how they treat their people that are well off, but how they treat the people that are the most vulnerable.”
Now, with a global pandemic sweeping the Earth, a new vulnerable population is on the rise — those most affected by COVID-19.
“Now more than ever it’s important to advocate for the human dignity of those who are incarcerated and just be really mindful of the psychological stress and trauma that goes along with being incarcerated,” Pahang said. “They aren’t allowed visitors, they aren’t allowed to see family members and essentially if the virus ends up in those facilities, there is nothing that they can do about it and it’ll spread like wildfire.”
The taxing nature of this type of work is not lost on Carranza, but he recognizes the position he’s in, as well. He has the ability to walk away, but not everyone is as lucky.
“The people that are going through this, they can’t step away, they have to live that life” he said. “That always encourages me to keep going because I can’t forget why I’m researching. It could potentially be the solution.”