This summer, I continued to work as a legal intern at the Law Office of James V. Cook, a local civil rights attorney who handles police and prison cases ranging from failure to treat to excessive force. For it to be considered a civil rights case, there needs to be a violation of consitutional rights. For incarcerated people, this usually involves a violation of the eighth amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. For victims of police brutality, civil rights attornies sue under the fourth amendment, which regulates search and seizure. Recently, the criminal justice system in the United States has come under close scrutiny, and in our work, we are able to see the full range of abuses inherent to this system.
Many of the cases handled by our firm involved contracted health providers for prisons. While media may focus on for-profit private prisons as the source of all issues in the criminal justice system, private prisons are a symptom of the dysfunction in the justice system, rather than the cause. Private contractors provide most services in state-run prisons and jails, and face strong incentives to minimize care and maximize profit. This manifests in understaffing, refusal to provide necessary care to incarcerated people, and other cost-cutting measures. In Florida, three of the major private contractors for medical care are Corizon, Wexford, and Centurion, all of which have provided care for Florida’s jails and prisons at different points and all of which have faced countless lawsuits for providing inadequate care. As an intern, I have conducted research examining all three of these medical providers and their failure to provide needed care at prisons and jails across the United States, spanning the course of decades. Recently, I have drafted legal briefs and motions about the process of judicial review, the Federal Tort Claims Act judgment bar, the actions of contracted medical providers, and more.
Although I became passionate about working in criminal justice reform several years ago, my work at the law firm has reminded me daily of the impact that the criminal justice system has on people’s lives. Prison policy is not a thought experiment, but something that affects real people, who do not have a choice in where they will receive health care, what food they will eat, or how they will be treated. Everything we do—from legal research, to motions filed, to the trials themselves—has tangible impact on a real person and, often, their family. Our clients are kind, intelligent, and respectful people who are being systemically stripped of their dignity and humanity. When incarceration has a face, a name, and a story, it is impossible to imagine myself working in any other field.
While working at the civil rights firm, I have learned both about the nitty-gritty of the legal process and, more importantly, about the reality of incarceration and police violence. The work is rarely easy and never cheerful, but it is work that has the potential to make a dent, however small, in the violence imposed by the criminal justice system. Everything I have done throughout the course of my time as a social science scholar—from analyzing the stakeholders involved in the criminal justice system to my internship itself—has reaffirmed my commitment to working in civil rights law and criminal justice until there is no more need for civil rights lawyers.
Simone Burgin is a student at Florida State University studying International Affairs, French, and Spanish. Simon Burgin is a 2020 Social Science Scholar as well as an intern at the Law Office of James V. Cook. You can connect with Simone on LinkedIn.
The feature image is from Pexels.