Caring for the Criminally Underserved in Our Criminal Justice System with Jennifer Soble

How do you care for people trapped in a system that’s been broken for centuries?

In Illinois, the discriminatory impact of the prison system is almost twice that of the country as a whole. This, combined with primitive processes and insurmountable barriers, prompted the launch of the Illinois Prison Project (IPP), an organization with the mission of winning a much-deserved second chance for incarcerated individuals.

In working with this underrepresented and overlooked population, Jennifer Soble, a former public defender and the founder of IPP, has developed a deep understanding of the justice system’s well-hidden injustices.

A medieval system in a modern era

Though she had always planned to be a lawyer, Jennifer was inspired to fight for system-wide changes for vulnerable populations early in her legal education, when she discovered how disturbingly similar many of the processes of the current U.S. legal system are to the practices of the 1300s and 1400s in England—the height of the witch trials.

The rules and results are just as arbitrary, Jennifer explains, just as rife with misconception and discrimination as the nonsensical trials that we know, in retrospect, were designed with conviction, not investigation, in mind.

It’s shocking to think about how far we haven’t come.  Our lawmakers rely on these historical tools of control and oppression because they are effective, especially in institutionalizing racism.

Filling a gap in criminal justice care

Jennifer founded the Illinois Prison Project in 2019 with the goal of “increasing the breadth, the scope, and the number of pathways out of prison”, an objective inspired by seeing how quickly inmates lose access to legal council—just a short time after their sometimes life-long sentence begins—rendering release all but unachievable. 

Jennifer focuses the Illinois Prison Project on disrupting the narrative in a different way: how can they get people who shouldn’t still be incarcerated out of prison? Her team’s multifaceted approach includes advocating for sentencing credits, pursuing clemency requests and resentencing when laws change, and assisting in the creation of new, better laws. 

The Illinois Prison Project pursues these activities from an anti-oppressive and liberatory perspective. To start, the organization is led by the very people it strives to emancipate: individuals who had long prison sentences, had those sentences commutated with the help of the IPP, and now work to update that very system.

Jennifer’s heartfelt and insightful exposure of our prison system should be required learning for every U.S. citizen—don’t skip this episode of the Care Work podcast. In addition to discussing the vital work her organization is carrying out, Jennifer speaks transparently with Alida about the secondary trauma inherent in working with disenfranchised individuals and the many ways every American can help realize these much-needed changes.

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