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Recently, after listening to Phoebe Judge’s podcast, Criminal, I decided to visit an inmate at a correctional facility five hours north. As a student studying political science with a passion for criminal justice reform, I believed this inmate’s case and experiences would be highly relevant to the direction and purpose of my advocacy efforts. To protect the privacy of the inmate, I will refer to him as Robert in place of his real name.

During the hour and a half that I spent talking with Robert, he was kind, honest, and open, and never seemed threatening or abnormal in the slightest. We sat in a tiny room, about the size of a supply closet, separated by a reinforced chain wall, similar to the cell Robert will spend the rest of his life in. He has been in solitary confinement for over 15 years. Robert has been in prison since he was 15 for two counts of murder. At the age of 21, he was released for 3 months, but was soon reincarcerated for attempted robbery. While serving 3-7 years, he committed a number of violations, including arson and stabbings, and accumulated a life imprisonment sentence.

As a child, Robert was constantly in and out of reformatories and institutions. According to Robert, nothing anyone did ever helped him, but rather taught him how to “calculate and analyze” his growing hatred. What could have helped Robert and shifted his trajectory? In his first month back in prison at 21, a highly respected friend of Robert’s told him he was “too impulsive.” Robert claimed these exact words changed how he faced his anger, and could have impacted him at a younger age. In a moment of clear, deep anguish, Robert said he wished a “young, intelligent woman” had taken him aside, looked into his eyes, and told him that they believed in him and would be there for him. He stressed this point, of needing a young woman to have been a mentor to him. He admits that many well-meaning mental-health professionals did their best to help him, but he didn’t trust them or their methods. He needed to hear that his life was valuable and capable of goodness.

In our country, people of color (POC) are frequently treated as worthless and less-than. In America, police have violently taken the lives of young, unarmed black Americans and received little to no punishment; young POC students in public and private education often lack the resources and opportunities to succeed in a system that values wealth and white skin; emergency services are called when a young, black woman is seen peaceably eating in her school’s cafeteria; incarcerated men, women, and children are forced to work in privately owned correctional facilities for little to no pay. It is no coincidence that African Americans are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of Whites. The millions of people, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity, rotting away in prisons and detention facilities deserve to be loved, valued, and feel safe, just as all people deserve these basic rights.

Robert and I agreed that incarceration is a worthless, cruel form of suppression and doesn’t benefit inmates in any way. Inmates are not reformed, but rather released as “shells of real people.” They lack empathy, compassion, and trust, all necessary to cultivating safe, healthy communities. Robert excluded non-violent, drug possession-charges related inmates from his dire expectations. After spending so many years in prison, Robert believes our extremely high rate of incarceration reflects the gradual shedding of compassion, community, and empathy in our society. He is terrified of what our world is becoming. Robert believes that every 5 years, each individual sentenced to more than 5 years should be given the choice to proceed with another 5 years in prison, or be euthanized. If he were let out tomorrow, Robert stated his first act would be to request euthanization so that he may “finally rest in peace.” He does not believe he or his fellow inmates are able to be free citizens.

At 3G, we believe that reform is possible, but do not support prisons, nor the privatization of such. In 2016, we released A System of Justice, to bring awareness to wrongful incarcerations and honor the life of Glenn Ford, who spent 33 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. According to the NAACP, “in 2012 alone, the United States spent nearly $81 billion on corrections. Spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of spending on Pre‐K‐12 public education in the last thirty years.”

Before joining 3G, I spent a year working full-time as an unpaid intern in Washington, DC. I spent August-December working in a Senator’s Capitol Hill office, and January-May working in the personal office of a supremely popular and highly regarded former politician. In both positions, I worked eight hour days, Monday-Friday. I received $300 from the Senator and $0 from the former politician. I felt extremely honored to be working under my principles, surrounded by brilliant people doing vitally important work, and have the opportunity to contribute to causes close to my heart and see democracy function before my eyes. I’m grateful for the recommendation letters, the lessons learned, friends made, and the two new blurbs on my resume. However, neither a resume nor recommendation letter can cover the financial burdens of living in Washington, DC, which often costs upwards of $6000 for a semester. During my time in DC, I met many young people coming from wealthy, connected families who could easily afford to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities for 2-5 months. I knew two people who could not, including myself.

Without the connections and networking opportunities that come with an internship, finding a job in politics is exceptionally difficult. Students from low-income and working-class families often may not be able to cover the costs of transportation, housing, food, and wardrobe without any salary or stipend. Therefore, access to opportunities on the Hill, and in politics in general, are largely limited to students who come from wealthy backgrounds, further deteriorating the cultural, racial, and socioeconomic diversity in our representation. Internships must be available to all qualified candidates in order to increase the representation of marginalized communities.

In a New York Times article, Internships Are Not a Privilege, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, asks his readers to, “consider…how a plum internship may alter a young person’s career trajectory. While some students take a summer job in food service to pay the bills, others can afford to accept unpaid jobs at high-profile organizations, setting them on a more lucrative path.” Students below a certain socioeconomic level are unable to reap the benefits an internship can offer, both in valuable work experience and networking opportunities, and can be effectively excluded from advancing in their field. In a Washington Monthly article, When Congress Paid its Interns, Saahil Desai, digital editor at Washington Monthly, states that, “By failing to pay interns, Congress not only dissuades children of the non-affluent from becoming interns, but also limits the talent pool from which it draws most of its paid staff…This pinching of the talent pipeline has another downstream effect: fewer minorities in the intern pool—a direct consequence of not offering payment—means fewer minorities in the ranks of the paid staff.”

At best, an unpaid internship is dispiriting and frustrating. For me and many others, it places enormous strain, financially and mentally, on you and your family. In the fall, I lived in southern Maryland and commuted two hours each way to avoid DC housing costs. I had to leave every morning by 6:45am and usually didn’t get back home until 7pm. Transportation fees and stress – along with having to pay for an expensive dog-walker since I was gone all day – forced me to seek housing in DC for the spring. I was lucky enough to avoid paying an average rent by finding kind-hearted individuals to house me and my dog for greatly reduced rates. Most students don’t have this privilege and must pay thousands of dollars for a DC or Virginia apartment. Even though I was able to avoid high rent, I still had to cover transportation, food, medical costs, and a new wardrobe. Working as a delivery person at night and on weekends, my family and I were just able to pull it off, but it was an extremely stressful, overwhelming period of my life. I frequently went to sleep without eating all day in order to cover my Metro fare the next morning. At the end of my second internship in May, I had lost nearly 12% of my body weight and was experiencing a multitude of health problems, including recurring migraines and acute, unexplained nerve damage.

I consider myself to be skilled, efficient, and hardworking, with a passion to help others through enacting transformative and progressive change. I’m committed to advocating for equal rights and opportunities, reproductive justice, farm animal welfare, criminal justice reform, and more. For as long as I can remember, helping others, both humans and animals, has been my primary passion. After a year spent working unpaid for the very people who are elected to do just that – be a public servant – I felt used and undervalued by the system I so desperately wanted to enter.

On Monday, June 25th, the Senate passed H.R. 5895, an appropriations bill that includes $5 million for Senate intern salaries, allocating approximately $50,000 per office. According to a 2017 congressional report by Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for paid internships on the Hill, only 32% of Senate Democrats and 51% of Senate Republicans pay their interns. In the House, a mere 4% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans pay their interns. H.R. 5895 is certainly a step in the right direction, but our nation’s fight for income equality remains. It is not a pleasant feeling to work for nothing and skip lunch when everyone around you is being paid.

This summer, as a 3G intern, I’m extremely grateful that we have always remained committed to paying our interns. Even as a nonprofit organization that relies entirely on generous donations, 3G understands the socioeconomic divides that arise from unpaid internships, and is proud to actively support institutional integrity. Jane Wells, our Executive Director, says it best: “for years, we have gratefully and proudly paid our interns. As an anti-slavery organization we cannot imagine not doing so.”

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