As a legal intake counselor at the ACLU of Washington and volunteer at the nonprofit Books to Prisoners, Lili Nimlo J.D. ’22 had the opportunity to correspond with incarcerated individuals in letters and phone conversations about the conditions of life in detention centers.
“I still carry with me the horrific stories of abuse that prisoners shared with me,” Nimlo said. “I came to see that cruelty, neglect, and violations of basic rights are not isolated mishaps in prisons, but rather part of the carceral system’s very fabric.”
Briana Roberson J.D. ’23 had similar exposure when her LAW 240Z: “Race and Criminal Law” professor surprised the class with a phone call from Jarvis Jay Masters, the author of “That Bird Has My Wings,” who was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, to discuss his outlook on life and perspective on the criminal justice system.
“He has been in prison for longer than I’ve been alive, but during that call, he carried a joy in his voice that I could never imagine a soul that has been in prison for over 30 years could carry,” Roberson said.
These experiences led law students Nimlo and Roberson to become co-presidents of the Stanford Prisoner Advocacy and Resources Coalition (SPARC), a student organization dedicated to supporting and standing up for incarcerated individuals and their families.
According to Nimlo and Roberson, such advocacy begins with awareness and is maintained through action.
John Bonacorsi J.D.’19, Anjuli Branz J.D.’19 and Sophie Hart J.D.’17 launched SPARC in 2017 with a focus on community engagement and making the broader law school and Stanford community more aware of the issues facing incarcerated individuals.
Branz said she wanted to ensure that each conversation she had about incarceration and the criminal-legal system involved people who had actually experienced it and not “just talking heads theorizing about the law.”
“We wanted to create connections between the community of folks impacted by incarceration and the community of folks at Stanford who cared about those issues and the internal, external community,” she said.
SPARC provides opportunities for education about and familiarization with incarcerated communities through monthly speaker events, lunch talks and documentary screenings highlighting prison reform, prison abolition and decarceration.
The organization’s members also work with Prisoner Legal Services, an organization that provides legal assistance to incarcerated individuals, to provide pro bono legal services to prisoners in local jails. These services include legal assistance on matters involving criminal status, the conditions of prison cell confinement, custody, release and re-entry.
“Prisons exist in the public imagination as a necessary and inevitable catchall solution to social problems,” Nimlo said. “But in reality, mass incarceration has failed to reduce violent crime and only exacerbates underlying problems of poverty, racism, inadequate mental healthcare and cyclical trauma.”
As of now, there are over 2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last 40 years, the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy reported.
However, changes in crime rates are only responsible for a small percentage of the increase. Instead, the operative factor is changes in sentencing law and police accountability, according to The Sentencing Project, an organization that compiles state-level criminal justice data from a variety of sources.
“To me, the most alluring and attractive aspect about the prison community is that they are forgotten,” Roberson said. “As a society, our prisons seem to be a mechanism to ‘lock up the bad people,’ wipe our hands clean and throw away the key. In my mind, this is not correction and rehabilitation, but laziness.”
Moving forward, SPARC plans to partner with local nonprofits to provide reentry care packages to incarcerated individuals upon their release and to host a book drive to donate reading materials to incarcerated people.
“Prisoner rights and advocacy is the difficult path that requires hard work, and I enjoy challenges,” Roberson said.