This summer I worked for Reprieve, a human rights advocacy nonprofit. My role was, in part, financially supported by the Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Endowed Fund for Human Rights through the UW Center for Human Rights. Being a Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fellow allowed me to engage in work that I believe in, while strengthening my skill set and preparing me for a career is a legal advocate.
At Reprieve, I worked as a legal fellow on the U.S. death penalty team. Functionally, this meant I engaged in large scale legal research relating to questions about abolition, as well as worked directly on individual cases for people who were facing the death penalty. Because of the highly sensitive nature of this work, there is a large chunk of work that I did this summer that must remain confidential.
If there is one word that I would use to describe what I took away from this summer, it would be connectiveness. Each of us have a somewhat unique understanding of what human rights mean, and we may have specific focuses within the human rights field. As we become experts on our specific areas of interest, it is easy to fall into silos. This summer was an important reminder that human rights advocacy and protection is inherently connected. For instance, the thing I am most proud of doing this summer was bringing a disability focus to death penalty abolition and mitigation. In the United States there are local and regional disability organizations that have nationally mandated responsibility and authority to protect and advocate for persons with disabilities. Although in the U.S. we tend to categorize these sorts of organizations as “civil rights” organizations rather than “human rights” organizations, the work they are doing without doubt falls under the umbrella of human rights. I was able to use my understanding of U.S. systems that work on behalf of persons with disabilities to build partnerships and expand advocacy opportunities for Reprieve. I also was able to help provide guidance to Reprieve about specific issues that persons with disabilities on death row may face, disability language, and systems of care.
I also took away a much deeper understanding of the U.S. death penalty. Going into the summer I would have considered myself staunchly against the death penalty for ethical reasons. This is still true. I now also have a much better idea of why legally the death penalty is unethical. At every step of the process there are barriers for individuals facing death row to advocate for themselves, from needlessly complicated appeal guidelines to the process of clemency. Each thing I learned solidified my belief that the United States has no business, ethically or legally, putting people to death.
Something that I was surprised by this summer was the emotional toll that working directly on capital punishment took on me. I consider myself to be resilient, due to both my personal and professional experiences. Even so, there were many days where I felt the secondary trauma wearing on me. I found myself needing to be intentional about how I cared for myself.
I am deeply grateful for the financial support I received that made my work this summer possible, and I am proud of the work I accomplished as a legal fellow at Reprieve.