An update from law student Brenda B.:
How do we treat our prisoners, and what does that say about us as a society? Despite being condemned, are prisoners entitled to civil rights (those given to us by a nation because of our citizenship) and human rights (those given to us because we are human)? For the obvious reasons, vulnerable women and children are more likable victims. But in the words of Dr. Rick Halperin, director of the SMU Embrey Human Rights Program, “Who cares about prisoners?” In Georgia, our class explored the complexity and correlation of these issues.
We began in Andersonville (officially, Camp Sumter), the largest Confederate prison of captured Union soldiers. An estimated 13,000 soldiers perished in the inhumane conditions at Andersonville: a filthy water supply in an overcrowded area bereft of shelter. Local women bringing blankets and food to prisoners were reportedly turned away by the prison commander. Not surprisingly, following the Civil War, the commander was convicted and executed for war crimes. In a desperate attempt to distance itself from the notorious prison, local officials re-drew county lines to exclude the prison from its territory. The site is now a national park.
Perhaps lesser known is the impact of “colored” troops during the Civil War. The North and South regularly exchanged prisoners of equal ranks, until the South refused to trade “colored” soldiers, considering them “runaway slaves” rather than “free men.” At Andersonville, “colored” troops were used as slave labor. When the South refused to exchange “colored” troops, well, the North refused to trade any soldiers. Hence the need for prisons on both sides.
Our next stop brought us to Atlanta, the home of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a must-see, state-of-the-art museum, and the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), a non-profit, public interest organization in the heart of downtown. These powerhouse organizations could not be more different, yet their overall mission is alike and their impact is far-reaching.
At the heart of its mission, SCHR seeks to end the criminalization of poverty. Its priorities include improving prison conditions, focusing on lack of access to counsel (spending meaningful time with a lawyer), and reforming the bail system that keeps incarcerated people who can’t pay fines for misdemeanors. Active in counties that lack public defenders, SCHR receives no government assistance and relies heavily on donations to support its efforts. In at least one initiative, the support was widespread and overwhelming: earlier this year, its national bailout initiative raised an astounding $1 million to bail out 125 people across the country, including 30 people in Georgia.
Also earlier this year, SCHR made headlines when it successfully represented James McWilliams who was “denied his right to a mental health expert to assist the defense at his 1986 capital trial in Alabama.” The United States Supreme Court reversed his capital case.
“No bells and no whistles, the Southern Center for Human Rights was my favorite place,” said Diana Saleh, an SMU Cox MBA student who plans to run for office one day. Recalling our day, the class seemed to nod in agreement.
Here’s to the SCHR attorneys, investigators, and community. Your tireless work inspires us more than you will ever know.
This post originally appeared on the Law & Human Rights blog.