Every week, the students in Judge Cratsley’s Judicial Processes in Community Courts Clinic venture out to different courts in Massachusetts to observe judicial proceedings first-hand and to aid our judges with research and writing projects. While most of us observe primarily criminal proceedings, it is rare that we see how convicted criminals lives are affected post-conviction. We hear people’s stories and are allowed personal peeks into their lives during their trials, but rarely do we have a chance to understand what, in fact, happens to them after they leave the courtrooms.
This past Monday, however, we were fortunate enough to get a rare glimpse into the lives of inmates. Judge Cratsley organized a tour of the Middlesex County House of Correction in Billerica, which was led by the House of Correction’s (“HOC”) legal counsel and assistant superintendent. The majority of the tour was spent on understanding the procedural aspects of a prisoner’s experience. We learned about how prisoners are processed from the moment they are brought into the jail, how the jail administrators determine which cell each prisoner will inhabit—primarily through one’s classification, or how serious an offender one is—how the days are spent, and the rehabilitation programs available to the prisoners. The HOC’s legal counsel pointed out numerous legal considerations that affect the prisoners’ daily lives. For example, after a Massachusetts judge toured the jails and deemed double occupancy cells to be borderline unconstitutional, the HOC shifted its rules, allowing only one prisoner per cell from thereon.
Yet, even more interesting than learning about the procedures safeguarding the rights of the prisoners was witnessing their existence within the HOC. We, as a society, put people behind bars and barbed-wire-fences and often forget that they are there. But at the entrance of the HOC, a small play area with a colorful rug and child-sized tables and chairs reminds you—there are people in here; these people have lives outside of these walls. The visit brought the faces of these prisoners to light, at least in my eyes. The first cell we peeped into (the prisoner was not inside), contained a picture of a young, smiling, elementary-aged girl and The Holy Bible. The next cell we strolled past had a small picture with the image of Jesus on it. By the third stall, I felt as if it was wrong to continue to peep in; these are, after all, the prisoners’ homes, as temporary, or bleak, or unreal as they may seem.
Visiting the HOC helped me connect the work I have been doing over the semester to the realities that will persist long after my time in the clinic has ended. I recommend that every law student, regardless of an interest in criminal law, make an effort to tour a HOC or prison at some point. Such visits help connect theory to reality, and put practical considerations before us in the midst of an education that is usually highly based in theory. Tomorrow when I go to court, I will understand the weight of the juries’ verdicts, the judges’ opinions, and the lawyers’ work—it is in the protection of our society, but also in the lives of our prisoners.