Reflection on Root & Rebound Internship
This post was written by our incredible outgoing summer intern, Sofie Werthan, when prompted with the question, “What did you learn this summer?” Sofie is a rising sophomore at Wellesley College, near Boston, Massachusetts, where she is an intended Ethnic Studies major focusing on systems of oppression. As you will learn from this post, Sofie is truly amazing, a gifted and talented writer and thinker. We were lucky to have her this summer and hope she will go back to school using her talents for criminal and social justice reform. Here are Sofie’s thoughts:
“In some ways, the United States prison system is like a black hole. People get pulled into its gaping rift, and it’s as if they have simply vanished from society for good. By disappearing individuals who have violated the cultural, social, and legal underpinnings of our society, prison does an exceedingly good job of obscuring many underlying social problems and inequities. While families and friends notice the absence of their incarcerated loved ones, many people (without an immediate connection to those on the inside) don’t spend much time actively thinking about what happens to people in prison, let alone what happens after they return from prison. In fact, we are even encouraged not to think about those who have been sucked into the carceral vortex: currently and formerly incarcerated people have been constructed as the societal Other to reject, in contrast with the aspirational figure of the successful law-abiding citizen. By promoting this dichotomy through legal and cultural barriers to reentry, we as a society have set up formerly incarcerated people for failure, vilification, and alienation from our culture and communities.
Before this summer, I was pretty ignorant to the specifics of what happens to people after they are released from prison/jail. In fact, I wanted to intern at Root & Rebound specifically because of my ignorance on this specific issue. Over the past several years, I have become more aware of social justice issues, and during this past year in college, I have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement. I have begun to research the historical and contemporary roots of police brutality, mass incarceration, the militarization of law enforcement, and the over-policing of non-white communities. However, much of this education has come from an academic perspective divorced from individuals’ personal experiences. I came to Root & Rebound in hopes of bridging this gap by directly engaging with my fellow community members who are in the process of reentry.
I grew up in a relatively privileged environment in Berkeley. While lower income communities and communities of color in Oakland, Richmond, and even within Berkeley are subject to the cyclical oppression and violence wrought by the prison industrial complex, I was able to maintain my distance emotionally and psychologically (if not physically, as well). None of my immediate family or friends have been incarcerated. Until this summer, my most intimate connections to the prison system were the fact that I drove past San Quentin State Prison every day on my way to and from high school and that I visited Alcatraz once to see Ai Weiwei’s art exhibit. I wanted to change this sense of personal detachment.
During my internship at Root & Rebound, I have immersed myself in the world of criminal justice and reentry from a more personal, holistic, and community-based perspective. In addition to getting an inside look at the tremendous work it takes to keep a small non-profit up and running, I also learned a lot about the myriad hardships that come along with a criminal record. By reading parts of Root & Rebound’s recently published Roadmap to Reentry guide, attending lectures, and having discussions with formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, I became aware of the many hurdles to employment, housing, education, and public benefits that formerly incarcerated people have to navigate. I learned about the complicated legal web of restrictions, regulations, and mandates that trap many formerly incarcerated people upon release.
During my summer, I have been exposed to many great opportunities: I have had the privilege of listening to the criminal justice-reform speaker Michael Santos, attending a panel (that included R&R’s own Sonja Tonnesen!) about the ADA as it relates to prisons and reentry, and engaging with many fantastic formerly incarcerated people at an advanced film screening of the documentary Life After Life. This summer has taught me innumerable lessons about forgiveness, humanity, and compassion. I made many connections to people involved in advocacy work and started forging inter-community bonds. This summer has made me even more excited about local non-profit advocacy work and has helped me feel even closer to the Bay Area community.
My internship came at a unique time in our country’s history. The criminal justice system and its many flaws have taken the center stage as President Obama’s concludes his final term. This summer, I have witnessed history being made as Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, announce a reconsideration of this country’s excessive use of solitary confinement, and reinstate Pell Grants for incarcerated people. By fits and starts, criminal justice reform is now a hot topic. Media, politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people across the country are waking up to the prospect of (bipartisan!) prison reform. It seems like an emphasis on rehabilitation and tolerance is beginning to replace a culture of harsh discipline and cold indifference to the struggles of currently and formerly incarcerated people. I am proud to have played a small part in the movement this summer. Thank you R&R for giving me the opportunity to help make a change!”