The internship is approaching its end. Looking back, much has happened. We have a new intern at the office, and on the first few days, for the most of the time he was saying, “That’s crazy.” And it took us a while to realize what was crazy about what we just said, as we got so used to it.
We receive crazy letters and phone calls every day. Once, in the envelop we found a small bag of gun powder. The writer said he was building a bomb so that he could prevent a race riot in his facility. How he managed to get that letter out, we had no idea. We received letters of people telling us about their crimes, or how innocent they were – including infamous serial killers we later found out from the internet. Letters about horrible things that happened in prison, from sexual abuse to physical violence, and from unjust treatment to gravely insufficient services. We heard stories of prison breaks, about gang fights, about suicides, and about God (Once a caller said, “I am calling in just to tell you, the only religion on earth is compassion,” and then hung up immediately).
We went to prisons on a regular basis, dealing with reasonable or extremely mean officers, and polite or demanding clients. And just the general atmosphere of repression. Every time, walking out of prison, we feel a physical sense of headache – and imagine how people feel living there for decades.
All I meant to say is that, it has been an emotionally charged summer. We get to be there for people for whom we sometime are the only support, and that was empowering. Sometimes our clients are not even looking to win a case, just wanting to know that their voice is heard. “Once you are in prison,” one client once told me, “People forget you slowly.” It was heartbreaking when I received a letter from a client, which said, “Please keep in mind that over the decades I have acquired a lot of patience, so don’t feel pressured to do anything quickly, and don’t let this interfere with your school work.” It was also heartbreaking when I was looking up potential sources of support for a client, and found out her only person in life passed away more than ten years ago and she didn’t even know that yet – we were the people that had to be the messenger. They told me that even just with us being there, they felt better.
At the same time, it was overwhelming when realizing how little we could do. Every day, we turn down dozens of requests, regretfully informing them how we are a tiny organization with very limited staff and resources. Sometimes we were able to direct them to referrals that might be able to help them, and other times we were not even able to do that. Once a caller said she had tried everything, and we were her last source of hope, and I had to tell her that there was nothing we could do. It is a painful but important skill to learn, that is to overcome this feeling of powerlessness, knowing how little one can do yet still persist; to empathize with the client yet don’t let that emotion consume you. I see the long way to go, in becoming an effective lawyer that not only aspires to the greatest ideals but also brings real changes on the ground.