Katharine Gillen ’20 Defends Clients’ Legal Rights in the Criminal Justice System at Phillips Black Inc. in San Francisco, CA

I’m on the phone with a client, making small talk before delving into updates on his case. “So, how are you enjoying the internship? I’m sure that looks great to law schools, huh?” he asks earnestly. I pause, off-put by the idea that our client, let’s just call him E, may think I’m here for a resume-builder. Responding with the classic “it’s been a great experience, and I feel like I’m learning a lot,” seems belittling to him and his situation — like I view him more as an experience to add to my CV instead of a human being who I am here to help. “I’m honored to be a part of the team here. I really believe in the mission of Phillips Black,” I respond, stumbling over my words a bit. “And,” I add, “I can assure you that the reason I’m here is not because it may look good to law schools.” After talking about where we are at with the case, E says, “Well, I’ll write you a recommendation for law school. People like you have to keep fighting the good fight,” before hanging up the phone.

I am a Politics major and a rising junior at Whitman. This summer, I am in San Francisco interning at Phillips Black Inc., a nonprofit, public interest law firm that provides representation to indigent prisoners who have been given the highest sentences under the law — juvenile life, life without parole, and the death penalty.

Because of the confidentiality agreement that I signed, I can’t reveal any details of E’s case. What I can say is that E has been in prison for way too long. Throughout my work this summer, it has been increasingly clear how truly disproportionate the application of the law is. If you have the unfortunate luck of being born poor, black, gay, in the south, mentally ill, or — god forbid — all five of those things, in terms of receiving a fair trial, equal sentencing, or your Eighth Amendment right to obtain a meaningful opportunity for release from prison, you are essentially screwed from the start. I pass students on Whitman’s campus who have done worse things than what some of our clients at Phillips Black are serving decades upon decades for.

In every way, this particular client I just got off the phone with has demonstrated that he will be a productive citizen if he is ever released. I look up to him in terms of his resilience, mindset, and drive to make a better life for himself. By having him locked up for decades, society is missing out, and a man’s life has been ruined. Whether it’s the system’s racism, classism, homophobia, ableism…etc, the United States prison system is designed to make people fail.  And this manifests into more narrow issues — felony disenfranchisement, for example — and suddenly a picture is painted for you that depicts how the United States uses the prison system as a way to keep wealthy white people in control of this country.

What Phillips Black does is pick up clients who have been, for all practical purposes, discarded from society, and fight for the rights that they should be entitled to. I have mainly been working on E’s case, learning about juvenile life sentences, post-conviction and mitigation work, capital defense work, the parole application (and most likely, subsequent denial) process, reentry resources for clients, and the way in which law can be used for good. Phillips Black has given me the confidence that there are people working tirelessly to right this system, and that I can be one of them. While this internship has opened my eyes to just how wide the impacts of a failed criminal justice system are, it has also given me more direction in terms of the work I want to do in the future.

So, summary of my summer learning thus far: man oh man, is the prison system a massive pile of sh**. And more sh** keeps coming. And sometimes the pile feels too big to tackle. But ya just gotta keep scooping it away, lump by lump, and have faith that there are others who are helping to scoop the sh** away, too.


Experiences like Katharine’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff

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