Samuel Feineh, '19
Corresponding with criminal justice: Letters that brought me hope
It wasn't until the summer after my sophomore year, through my second Cardinal Quarter opportunity, that I became more confident in who I am and what I stand for.
During summer 2017, I interned at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, which is dedicated to reforming prison conditions nationwide. In 2014, the ACLU filed a 34,000-person class action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) for violating a number of inmates' constitutional rights. After a long legal battle, the ADC agreed to reform its health care system, limit the use of solitary confinement, and provide greater access to mental health resources. When I arrived, the ACLU was monitoring the department's compliance.
As part of the class action lawsuit, inmates could send letters to the ACLU. I spent most of my time responding to each inmate who wrote to us to supply them with resources to help them file their own lawsuits, seek medical help, or file a grievance in prison.
Hundreds of inmates wrote. Some had simple requests, and others revealed the horrid prison conditions they faced.
Reading these letters was at times straightforward, and at other times, heartbreaking. There were countless stories about inmates being denied medical coverage by private contractors, and as a result, facing life-or-death situations. In one letter, a prisoner wrote that a prison guard raped a severely mentally ill inmate, yet no investigation was undertaken.
While there was much to be frustrated about, I learned something so important from my colleagues at the ACLU: when you want to change a corrupt system, you have to start somewhere. And after you start, you keep fighting.
I spent hours on each letter, combing through the inmates' files to send as many resources as possible. I also scrutinized thousands of documents—including medical reports and use-of-force logs—that the ADC sent us to ensure that they complied with various class action stipulations.
As part of this review process, I analyzed prison temperature logs. Each of the 15 ADC state prisons had to record the temperature at set times every day, compile the data, then send it to the ACLU each month. These records helped the ACLU ensure humane conditions in the facilities, especially in the summer months when temperatures sometimes exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The logs were routine and usually unsurprising, though we wondered if the prisons were falsifying the data because most of the temperatures ranged between 80 and 90 degrees. We had no way of proving deceit, until I found the proof.
One day, while reviewing the last few pages of one state prison's report to the ACLU, I noticed that the facility had filled in temperature data for six dates that came after the date they had sent us the logs. The ACLU team provided the information to the judge, and swift action was taken to punish the ADC.
Witnessing how evidence is leveraged to administer justice further revitalized my hope in prison reform: through rigorous analysis, I played my part as a watchdog and made a difference.
When I came home each night to the Stanford in Washington house and told my new friends about my work, I felt my newfound sense of purpose seep into the conversation. This experience left me believing I am a change agent, and I'm excited to continue nurturing my passion. I am emboldened to keep fighting.