A New Meaning of Justice
I stayed out until midnight one night sitting on a park bench, reading The Prisoner’s Wife, as different groups of tourists speaking Polish, Korean, Hindi took turns shuffling past me. Gradually, the sun faded into dusk, then left only the glow of the streetlight in the middle of the park illuminating my pages. I’m sure people must have stared at me, with tears trailing down my face, sniffling in the most undignified way possible, yet still unable to tear myself from my book.
The thing with interning at the ACLU in mass incarceration policy is that it’s not just a 9-to-5 internship, an office job that you can just leave from. It’s immersion into a world of passionate individuals, real stories, and a keen sense that every effort mattered in this fight to keep people out of bars. It was that sense of urgency that kept me reading Asha Bandele’s powerful memoir The Prisoner’s Wife late into the night. Bandele, the wife of a prisoner sentenced to twenty years, reminded me through her fluid prose, of the pain that incarceration dealt to prisoners and to their loved ones—and the justice for which we had to keep fighting.
The shackling of pregnant women. The criminalization of psychiatric disability. Aging prisoners, weak and ailing, yet still kept behind bars. Solitary confinement. Violence by guards. The Prisoner’s Wife. Each new puzzle piece revealed a story of 2.2 million Americans behind bars—and reminded me that whether through litigation, policy reform, or activism, we had to remind people of our common humanity in order to even get close to achieving justice.
That’s what my summer taught me most of all. Ultimately, what I learned most wasn’t the fact that women make up a growing percentage of incarcerated people, or that my home state of Pennsylvania is launching a justice reinvestment initiative or that Mississippi has terrible mental health policies.
What I learned most was a new definition for justice—one that incorporates mercy, humanity, and healing rather than isolation and punishment.
Justice isn’t about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but rather about safety, healing, and humanity. Justice is not the strip-searches that Bandele’s husband had to go through; justice is not locking someone in a cell and throwing away the key. Justice is not our current model of criminal justice and mass incarceration.
Perhaps someday, I will be able to read The Prisoner’s Wife, and know that because of me, one less wife has cried that all she wants is for her husband to come home to her. Perhaps someday, I will be able to help realize the Cornel West quote, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Perhaps someday, we will truly make the justice system, just and more importantly, compassionate.
In the meantime, I’ll keep fighting.
Eva Shang, Harvard College ’17
Intern, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU
New York, NY
Read additional Presidential Fellowship summer experience blogs.