JENNIFER: And so what that means is that the overwhelming majority of people who are currently incarcerated, have no one to turn to to try to help get them out of prison. And that’s true if they’re innocent. And, you know, everyone likes to talk about innocence, and I get why it’s a very tangible injustice. But that’s also true if they’ve become sick. It’s also true if they’ve become disabled. It’s also true if the law changes and their underlying conviction, their underlying crime is no longer a crime. It’s true if they’re a completely different person now, 10, 20, 30 years later. It’s true if they went into prison when they were 19 and now they’re 45, and that 19 year old is no longer recognizable to them, but they are still stuck with the sentence that they got back then.
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ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not, you’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
ALIDA: How do we care for people trapped. In a broken system and still take care of ourselves? That is the large topic of conversation I dive into with this week’s guest, Jennifer Soble, a former public defender, lawyer, and founder of the Illinois Prison Project. Jennifer talks about how she and the Illinois Prison Project are working to update the outdated and oppressive laws that govern the U.S. Prison system. So that prisoners serving long term sentences can get their much deserved freedom. I hope you’ll give this important episode a listen and feel moved and called to assist prisoners for whom legal counsel has been largely inaccessible.
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ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I am so excited to have you, Jenny.
JENNIFER: It’s such an honor and a privilege.
ALIDA: I have been so impressed to see what it is that you’ve been able to do in our community, and specifically the fact that you are coming from a background of representing people who have really been condemned to die in prison, and worked for their release. And identified that there are these structural problems that need to be solved so that it’s not just this eking out of one person at a time, but that bigger changes can be made. When did you decide that you were going to be an advocate for people who were facing these really serious penalties? Especially folks who are indigent, who are juveniles, who are facing a whole load of barriers beyond just what they’re being sentenced with?
JENNIFER: That’s such a big question about when I decided to do this work, I was really quite young. I grew up in a fairly wealthy suburb outside of Detroit, and you know, anyone who knows anything about the history of Detroit knows how horrifically segregated that city is, both in terms of race and also wealth. My family was really affected by addiction in ways that were extremely pervasive and very, very difficult for me and for my sister when we were kids. And pretty early on, I realized that other people on my block were going through very similar things, that this, this was in the sort of before the opioid epidemic, but there were pieces of that that were already beginning to touch our lives. The other thing to know is I grew up as the oldest child in a family of very alpha male lawyers, who spent my childhood sort of poking at me and picking at me in ways, completely out of love, but designed to make me tougher and stronger and really fight for the underdog. And I think it was the sort of combination of those two factors that led me down a path of lawyering. I think lawyering was always sort of in my blood and was going to be unquestionable. And lawyering, particularly for vulnerable populations.
The real turning point for me, sort of the thing that solidified my commitment to working in criminal defense was a class I took my freshman year of college. I was really lucky to take a seminar run by a law professor on the history of the Anglo American legal system. So we started looking at the legal system all the way back to you know, 13 and 14 hundreds in England. What we read about was these systems in the 13 and 14 hundreds where once you were accused of being a witch, right, because that’s what you were accused of back then, you were a witch. The way that the government would test whether you were a witch is they would put you on trial. And back then, trials were religious, so the government would ask folks to undergo these ridiculous tests, designed to determine if you were a witch. And it really struck me that there were very strong corollaries between 13th/14th century trials in England, and the so called criminal legal system that we have today, that it’s, in many instances, just as arbitrary, it’s just as rife with misperception. It’s just as discriminatory. It’s just as problematic. I think from that point forward, I’ve always been really committed not only to lawyering and to representing folks who are vulnerable, but to fighting against a system of punishment that is deeply, deeply oppressive.
ALIDA: I want to know, from your perspective, why haven’t the laws changed?
JENNIFER: You’re absolutely right that things have not dramatically changed. What we’ve done is sort of dressed the wolf up, right? We took off the clothing of religiosity, and if you’ve survived, it’s because of God and we’ve put on clinical language. We’ve put on legal garb on top of this horrific system. And so a lot of the underlying forces that create a system of punishment, mostly oppression and social control are as alive and well as they ever have been. And that’s probably why they haven’t changed, right? They are very effective tools of control. They are very effective tools of oppression. Our criminal legal system has exploded in size. I mean, just exponentially exploded in size. In part because it’s so hard now to see you think about 17th century America, but, you know, I always think about England, because that’s sort of where a lot of our especially brutal practices came from. Hangings were public, and the punishments were barbaric, but there was no way to pretend that they weren’t happening. The public knew what was happening.
What’s happening today is that folks get sent to prison at truly alarming rates. Our prison system is so outsized, both in terms of numbers of incarcerated people, but also as a per capita for our population. I mean, it’s really disproportionate, but it’s also really, really hard to see. So if you think about the 28 prisons in Illinois, none of them are in Chicago. Only one of them is within an hour of the city of Chicago, where most of the folks who live in this state are, and where most of the folks who are in prisons come from. Prisons are absolutely by design in far flung areas. They’re hard to access, both as a transportation matter, right? It’s hard to get to Big Muddy Correctional Center. That is a physically difficult location to get oneself to, but they’re also hard to get inside once you’re there visiting, our hours are extremely restrictive, the rules around visitation are arbitrary. They’re both arbitrary in and of themselves. And they’re arbitrarily enforced. The same thing with phone calls. Phone calls are you can’t call into a prison unless you’re a lawyer and you have a legal call set up, but a family member can’t call in. It’s often very difficult for incarcerated people to call out. Communication is restricted by design. And all of this keeps the size and scope of our punishment system really hard to wrap one’s mind around, even if you’re intentionally looking for it. So even though I spend all of my time thinking about, way too much of my time, thinking about Illinois’ criminal legal system and prison system, there is no world in which I will ever fully wrap my head around just how big and just how bad it is. Because I can’t see it. And I’ll never be able to see it all. And that’s on purpose. That’s a feature.
ALIDA: Something that strikes me is, this was all information that you had to learn firsthand. So if you weren’t representing people subject to this system, you wouldn’t know about these arbitrary roles, you wouldn’t know about how they’re arbitrarily enforced. You wouldn’t know about these transportation difficulties. And so you’ve had this exposure. And I’m wondering if you might share a little bit about how you came to fully understand just the sheer size, as much as you can of this system and how it is built and designed to keep people in it, as opposed to thinking about release.
JENNIFER: This is going to sound maybe the phrasing is going to be a little bit awkward, but I have a lot of privilege when it comes to interacting with folks who are incarcerated because I’m a lawyer. And so a lot of the burden around accessing loved ones, talking to loved ones, communicating with folks on the inside, are so much worse for family members. I actually can’t tell you from firsthand experience just how hard that is. And I really can’t tell you from firsthand experience, thank goodness, for lots of reasons. The emotional and financial burden that, that poses those kinds of questions are ones I only have answers through secondhand experience. Because of that, I don’t have a full sense of just how egregious that system is, because when you’re a lawyer, you can schedule a call. It’s not always easy and it’s not always convenient, but I have that luxury. I can get a private phone call with a client within a couple of days at most facilities. If my child were incarcerated, I would not be able to do that. I would not be able to call my child simply because I wanted to talk to them, or even if there was a very good reason why I needed to talk to them. I can schedule a legal visit at a prison and get one within a couple of days. If it were my child, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do that.
So I guess I just like with that box around my answer. We, at least as an organization, know what we know a couple of ways. I think the most important way is from our clients directly. I’ve had the great privilege and, um, honor of working with a lot of folks who are, or were currently incarcerated. I say were, because a lot of our clients are now free. And that’s an amazing and wonderful thing. Some of the horrors of the criminal legal system that I know about and the horrors of the prison system, most of them actually come from our clients telling us about those problems. And then the other way is through going to prisons. There’s nothing that quite replaces the experience of going to a place if you want to really experience, in its full complexity. And I went to Dixon Correctional Center a couple of months, maybe a year ago now. And Dixon has a mental health housing unit called X House. And I’ve been visiting Dixon at this point for years and had only ever been to the visitation room.
So I would see my clients in these, you know, visitation rooms. They would be brought to me. I didn’t see the cell house, I didn’t hear the screams. I just saw my client, and I would go home. And this was a visit where I was with a couple of colleagues, and we had a whole bunch of clients to see. And we had one client in particular who was in a wheelchair and was in the mental health housing unit. And so the guards, for whatever reason, decided that they were going to take us back into the housing unit where they kept seriously mentally ill, people who’d been diagnosed with serious mental illness. So we got in a van and they drove us. It wasn’t really a mile away, but it felt very far away. They drove us across the prison complex to this separate building, and as soon as we pulled up and got out of the van, people who were incarcerated on the inside could see us, right? And at this point, we represented a lot of them, they knew who we were.
As soon as they realized who we were, because we had talked to these clients a lot on the phone. This was right when visits had reopened. So we hadn’t met a lot of folks in person because of COVID, they started yelling for us, which of course they did. We represented a lot of them. We were only there to see one or two of them in that visit. But they were all in their individual cells. They were locked into their individual cells. Even though it was the middle of the day and there was no reason, you know, it was a perfectly pleasant day. There was no reason for them to be locked up. We went into this very small sort of housing unit that had two tiers, it was a two tiered housing block arranged in a circle. It was small and the whole building was small and really dark and really dank. We were there in the middle of the day, on a sunny day. Inside, it was like, you know, there was no natural sunlight.You know, there were windows, but they had bars on them. And every single person was in their cell, clanging on their doors and yelling to talk to us. And it occurred to us as we arrived, and we sort of talked about it as we were leaving, that they’d all just been locked in their cells all day long. You know, they didn’t lock those folks up because we arrived.
They brought us there because everybody was locked up. It was really upsetting and awful for them. Of course, it was upsetting for us experiencing it for the first time, but it was really upsetting to realize, or really see firsthand, how horrific the living conditions were, especially for a group of people that the Department of Corrections had designated as having serious mental illness. There was no, this was not a situation where this wasn’t an especially vulnerable population, or they didn’t know that some of the folks in that setting, which would have been inhumane for anybody, let me just be very clear about that. But for folks who were already vulnerable, it was just really, really upsetting to see firsthand. It didn’t change necessarily anything about what we knew was happening. But it was a really different thing to see it firsthand.
ALIDA: One thing that’s standing out to me, and I promise we’ll get to the hopeful part of this conversation, which is what the Illinois Prison Project does and what you’ve been able to do. But before we get there, you shared this example of this truly difficult experience at Dixon and then also representing this client in these heartbreaking circumstances. And it brings up the question of you, you as someone who is being charged with offering care and often being the closest contact that these people have, because you’re probably the only person they can access in a relatively consistent way, given the barriers that exist in the system. And in preparation for this conversation, I was going back to my sociological and psychological research books and papers. And one of the things that I found was just recent studies on the impact on attorneys who represent people who have experienced domestic violence, physical abuse, or intimate violence, intimate partner violence, any kind of violence really, that’s happening within the home. And in thinking about a lot of the people that you represent and have represented, this in of itself is very common within folks who are entering the system, not to mention the violence that they experience from the system itself, and then when they’re actually there in these facilities. And I wonder if you experienced or have experienced the same challenges that these lawyers working on social justice and human rights in Dr. Levin’s study have, which are holding on to secondary trauma, feeling unequipped, feeling much more comfortable navigating the law than actually essentially being social workers, or confidants, or therapists, because there just isn’t other support. And how that has affected you as someone in this position to offer care.
JENNIFER: Yeah, I mean, I think anyone who does direct client work, especially with folks who are touched by the criminal, legal, juvenile, or family court system, who says that they don’t have secondary trauma, is probably not being perfectly honest with themselves. Of course I carry secondary trauma from this work, and of course it affects me and, and my life. It’s a really hard thing to carry. And I think I do what a lot of folks sort of, of a I think I’m, of a slightly previous generation, 42 too, which is I compartmentalize. And I’m not saying that this is a healthy approach.
From the beginning of my career, and I was really lucky to be trained in an office that took a holistic approach to client representation. It’s always been really important to me that my clients drive the work. So what that means is that they’re making decisions both about the legal approach and about the parts of their story that are shared. And just starting from that baseline means that I’ve always seen it as part of the work to be available for my clients emotionally in most cases, that’s a really, really good thing. Um, in most cases, that’s a really, really good thing. In some cases, it’s been, not a good thing. There have been cases where my clients have had way more to bring than I could possibly carry. Way more than I could possibly carry. And I think the way that I’ve gotten through it and I don’t know that this is the way that everyone has gotten through it, but the way that I’ve gotten through it is, by having colleagues that I’ve been able to talk to. I’ve always had close friends who do this kind of work in one form or another, often in the same spaces that I’m in, but sometimes in other spaces, because this kind of secondary trauma is pretty universal. I think all public defenders or folks who are in this space at various times, been in therapy, and at various times found that not to be particularly useful. And then I’ve done what a lot of folks sometimes do, and this is a maladaptive response. There have been times where I’ve sort of just muscled through it, because the sort of Faustian bargain I’ve made with myself in certain moments, which is always pretty conscientious, actually, I’m aware that I’m choosing it is that right now the thing that I need to do is get through this period with this client.
ALIDA: It’s really interesting, because the way that you are describing it, actually really supports theories around caregiving and caretaking, in that care work in many cases, is othering work, in that it others you, that you become othered from yourself, because depersonalization and detachment are protective strategies, and you have to determine when to switch it back on and learn to control that switch in ways that others don’t. Because their perhaps only experience of caregiving is in their immediate families and not at this kind of sense of tremendous scale. And so a lot of what you’re sharing makes sense to me, and it also obviously has been studied very widely. But one of the reasons I bring it up is because when we think about the criminal justice system, we think about lawyers, we often don’t think about care or about them in this human context, right? That’s where I wanted to go next, which is how you do the work. What the Illinois Prison Project is how you have successfully advocated for release and disrupting these absolutely terrible systems that have harmed so many people. Because you and your organization represent our hope, not just for the state, but overall for criminal justice reform more broadly.
JENNIFER: Uh, I really appreciate that, and I love to talk about the work, so I’m really excited about this. Yeah, so, I think one thing that people don’t realize about the criminal legal system is that there’s a point at which, as a legal matter, a conviction is final, a person’s sentence is final, and they are no longer entitled under the law, as a matter of practice, to legal assistance on their case. And so what that means is that the overwhelming majority of people who are currently incarcerated have no one to turn to, to try to help get them out of prison. And that’s true if they’re innocent. And, you know, everyone likes to talk about innocence, and I get why. It’s a very tangible injustice. But that’s also true if they’ve become sick. It’s also true if they’ve become disabled. It’s also true if the law changes and their underlying conviction, their underlying crime is no longer a crime. It’s true if they’re a completely different person now, 10, 20, 30 years later. It’s true if they went into prison when they were 19, and now they’re 45, and that 19 year old is no longer recognizable to them, but they are still stuck with the sentence that they got back then. This is not only true in Illinois. It’s true across the country. Access to counsel basically just stops, and it stops really early in the life of a person’s sentence. And so that’s the problem that I saw back in 2019 when I founded IPP. I was looking specifically at who was incarcerated in Illinois and why, and was really blown away at, not only the sheer number of people who are locked up in this state, but how old so many of them are, how many of them are elderly, how sick some of them are, what they’re serving sentences for. There are people in this state serving natural life sentences on drug cases, on armed robberies. I was really shocked at how many veterans there are in our prison system. I knew our prison system was racially disproportionate. I was shocked at how racially disproportionate Illinois is, its discriminatory impact is almost twice as great in our prison system as the nation as a whole. So I know Illinois we consider ourselves a relatively progressive state. We are doing a lot worse than the rest of the country on this metric.
And so I started IPP to start to change that and disrupt that narrative by figuring out how do we get people out of prison who are already there? Not how do we prevent people from going in in the first place, because there are so many great people doing that work. But how do we get people who are already in prison who should not be in prison, and yes, that’s true for everyone, but starting with some clients, because we had to start with some individual people, how do we get folks out? And so that’s what our lawyers work on. And we do that in a variety of ways. We represent people in clemency cases. Clemency is when a person asks the governor to either change their sentence or their conviction. In our cases, we’re asking the governor to change our client’s sentences.
We do that through administrative advocacy. So we work directly with the Department of Corrections to get our clients access to sentencing credits. Sometimes it’s credit they’ve earned over the years. Sometimes it’s credit they had that was taken away, but really shouldn’t have, or really should be given back. We represent clients in resentencing’s. So when the law does change, there are these very small windows in a very few number of cases for folks to go back into court. About two years ago, we wrote and got past Illinois’ first Compassionate Release Law, which creates a pathway for release for people who are terminally ill, or medically incapacitated. And we’re now doing a lot of those cases, which is really pretty exciting.
So that’s what we do. We find ways to get people out of prison. Sometimes we make up ways to get people out of prison with the sort of ever present goal of increasing the breadth, the scope, and the number of pathways out of prison. Because right now, there are so many ways in, and there are just basically zero ways out.
ALIDA: And with that in mind, and the successes that you’ve had, with folks listening, what can they do to contribute to the care that you’re offering this community?
JENNIFER: Yeah, I mean, the most obvious thing folks can do is to support our work financially. We have a team of 24 at this point, that includes lawyers, we carry a caseload of more than 400 people at a time. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of care. Our team also includes an education department that goes out into the community and teaches the community members, teaches journalists, teaches lawmakers, about the harms of mass incarceration. And what’s really important about our education team is that it is led by, and staffed by, people who not only were sentenced to very long prison sentences, each of our staff members right now, who is directly impacted received either a natural life or a virtual life sentence. Each one of them received a commutation and was a client of IPPs at some point. And now each one is not only free, but they are working with us to share their experiences about how and why our prison system needs to change. So that work is incredibly important, and we’re really fortunate to be able to learn from them and to work with them.
The other thing that folks can do, we are just, just starting to move into the legislative space in a really real way. We have a couple of bills right now in front of the House and Senate. Folks can go to our webpage for our representation and advocacy work is the https://www.illinoisprisonproject.org/. You can go there to support our work. Our legislative work is at https://www.ippaction.org/ if you go there, you can learn about our legislation. You can support that work. But you can also get in touch with your legislators and tell them to support the reforms that we’re working on right now.
Right now, we’re working on three bills. One gets rid of three strike sentencing. Illinois has a three strikes law, which means people can get life in prison, mandatory life in prison on their third class sex offense. It’s outrageously, racist. It’s an oppressive and abusive law. Uhm, it is long overdue to abolish it. The second piece of legislation that we’re working on is a reclassification of felony murder to second degree murder. Felony murder is when someone dies during the course of a commission of a different kind of felony. So let’s say robbing a convenience store. If three people go to rob a convenience store and one person goes into the store and for whatever reason ends up killing the cashier, not only is the person who goes into the store right now, responsible for first degree murder, but so is the getaway driver. Even if that person didn’t know that the shooter had a gun or was going to shoot someone. We want to change that to make felony murder, second degree murder.
The other piece of legislation that we’re working on is a supervision reform. Right now, when folks get released from prison, they’re on supervision and they have a whole bunch of technical conditions that they have to comply with, see their probation officer, taking anger management, have a job right now. If people on supervision violate one of those technical provisions, they can get set back to prison. And in fact, there are 2300 people in our prisons right now on technical violations. This legislation changes that, to say that folks cannot go back to prison on technical violations. They can go back if they’ve committed a new crime, but not because they violated some technical rule around their supervision. So those are the three bills that we’re advancing. You can learn more about them on our website, ippaction.org, and we’d be really grateful for any support for either side of our work.
ALIDA: Thank you so much for sharing that. And if folks want to continue following you, where can they find you?
JENNIFER: You can find IPP at IL Prison Project. That’s on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, gosh, I don’t think we have TikTok, but all the major platforms, it’s all the same. Il prison Project for Illinois. Prison Project. I’m on Twitter at Jsoble1, and I think my other accounts are private and I’m going to keep it that way. So find me on Twitter.
ALIDA: Thank you so much for joining us, Jenny. I have had such a wonderful time listening to your stories and I can’t wait to share this with everyone.
JENNIFER: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure and an honor to talk with you today.
ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.
This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Theme music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic-Grubisich.
Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.