by Sarah Hertel-Fernandez,
June 16, 2014
Having recently returned to the office as a summer Research Associate, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my time as an intern last semester. Most of my time was spent in the office, but on a very rainy Wednesday in April, I accompanied the Prison Policy Initiative’s staff to Rhode Island to observe the hearing for Davidson vs. Cranston. Beyond being a welcome interruption my midterms at Smith College, it was a change to see both PPI and the broader legal system in action.
As I listened to Peter, Aleks, and Leah reviewing the case and the schedule for the day on the ride to Providence, I was reminded by each of them in turn that I could and should ask questions.
I had started my once-a-week internship in January 2014, and besides being a crash course in prison reform, it had been a continuous, continuing lesson in learning how to ask the right questions. Through a series of small research projects and the guidance of the staff, I’d been learning how to frame research projects, how to be flexible with that framework, and what goes into making that research presentable and compelling. When investigating the ways in which inequality is created and sustained, and imagining how more equitable systems might take their place, both existing problems and their possible solutions must be made clear to your audience.
The hearing illustrated the importance of how research is presented. The plaintiffs were not incarcerated individuals but rather residents from other wards whose voting power was diluted by prison gerrymandering. A statistic, calculated from Census Bureau data, was repeated by Adam Lioz, the lawyer for the plaintiffs from Demos: three voters from the district where the prison population was counted have a much voting power as four from another. It was framed as a violation of the “one person, one vote” principle of equal representation, skewing population data that is used to apportion that representation. When oral arguments must be so concise, presentation is vital.
It was a reminder to me that the damage done by the prison gerrymandering is not just visited upon the communities from which prisoners (and their voting power) are taken. It distorts our whole political landscape. It was a day of sidestepping puddles between the ACLU office and the courthouse, learning about the planning and collaboration that went into this lawsuit, and realizing once again the importance of this work in the company of people who work well together.
I’m grateful for this opportunity to continue working with PPI, and I know I will take what I learn wherever my academic and professional life takes me.
Left to Right: Peter Wagner (Executive Director, PPI), Aleks Kajstura (Legal Director, PPI), Adam Lioz (Counsel, Demos), Brenda Wright (Vice President, Legal Strategies, Demos), Leah Sakala (Policy Analyst, PPI), Sarah Hertel-Fernandez (Research Associate, PPI).