Azadeh Zohrabi, who graduated from UCR with magna cum laude in 2008 and from Hastings College of Law in 2012, has recently been awarded the Soros Justice Fellowship—a grant which advocates international human rights and gathers the efforts of lawyers and activists to work on common issues. Zohrabi plans to work towards removing solitary confinement in California’s prison system.
Zohrabi developed her interest in prison law and systems during her undergraduate years at UC Riverside. She double majored in ethnic studies and African American studies and it was through her studies that she was able to gain gained exposure to studies of prison and race.
When reflecting on her experience at UCR, Zohrabi said, “The ethnic studies department is really good at UC Riverside. It was very interdisciplinary, so I learned a lot of related history, politics and some law to ethnic studies. That’s what motivated me to use the law in ways to deal with some of the things we were studying in ethnic studies.”
Zohrabi continued to pursue her research from her undergraduate years in law school. “When I went to law school I knew that the work I wanted to do was related to prison law, and specifically how race plays into incarceration, how we incarcerate people and what happens in prison based on their race,” said Zohrabi.
Zohrabi’s project for the fellowship is an effort to remove solitary confinement in the state of California, which has one of the biggest prison systems in the world. She hopes instead to implement prison policies to assist humane treatment of the prisoners.
“The issue that I’m working on in the fellowship was what I started researching at UC Riverside. My interest continued through law school and I was lucky enough to put together a project that’s all funded for the fellowship based on the interest that I already had and the work that I was already doing,” said Zohrabi.
In addition to Zohrabi’s favorable educational support, her motivation partly takes root from personal accounts with incarceration.
“A lot of things [motivated me] and some of it was my family’s experience with incarceration. My family members were incarcerated in Iran based on their political beliefs,” said Zohrabi.
Zohrabi recognized the injustice in criminalizing individuals due to political beliefs, whom she regarded as political prisoners, and noticed the universal commonality of the issue.
“When I started studying American history, I realized that a lot of people in America are also incarcerated—more around the 60s and 70s—but, even now, due to their political beliefs,” Zohrabi said.
The issue of political prisoners stirred an emotional reaction, which drove Zohrabi to extend her focus from protecting political prisoners to significantly altering facets of the prison system. She said, “The idea of people being criminalized just because of their politics bothered me a lot and caused me to do more research. Based on my interest in political prison, I became interested in the prison system as a whole. I think, politically, our country’s politics are set up to facilitate mass incarceration. In some ways, I think you could look at regular prisoners as political prisoners because a lot of them are in there because of their economic circumstances or their race,” said Zohrabi.
Zohrabi stated that many people are imprisoned for minor crimes, and often are more severely scrutinized because of race or economic discrimination. The effect incarceration has on their lives is immense, despite the crime, and studies show that it permanently affects their their personal and social relationships as well.
“There are a lot of collateral consequences coming to face after someone is released from prison. Prisoners end up losing their kids. Sometimes that’s permanent. And they can’t get public benefits, food stamps and they can’t get jobs because they have to check that box for felony conviction. That makes it hard for them to continue their lives in a way that will prevent them from being put back into prison again,” said Zohrabi.
Often times the prisoners are incarcerated for low level, non-serious and non-violent offenses. Considering low level crime associated with the great number of prisoners, the current solitary confinement prison system, which supposedly aims to punish criminals while maintaining a safe environment, has an adverse effect on prisoners.
“Solitary confinement was established to prevent violence but, now, thirty years later, we see that it actually made it worse. In fact, prisons that have solitary confinement units often have more violence,” said Zohrabi.
Zohrabi described many issues with solitary confinement. In such conditions, prisoners don’t get to exercise. She described the adverse effects that this has, comparing the situation to a “pressure cooker,” because it gives prisoners no outlet for their energy. When suppressed, this can result in unsafe and sometimes violent occurrences. On that same note, studies have proven that the prisons become a safer place when the prisoners are allowed to spend more time outside their cells and given opportunities to engage with other prisoners, staff and families.
Apart from the inhumane aspects of keeping the prisoners in individual cells for 23 hours, depriving them of exercise and outside contact, solitary confinement disrupts the preservation of individuals’ state of stability and ramifies social problems.
“Solitary confinement doesn’t make the prisons or the public any safer, nor does it make it safer to keep people in prison for 20 or 30 years under solitary confinement. Prisoners come out more damaged and their families are torn apart. What I see worst is the human cost of solitary confinement and the fact that there’s no benefit to solitary confinement,” said Zohrabi.
Zohrabi extended the issue of solitary confinement to youth prisons in California as well. She said, “We also have the same problem in youth prisons in California and it’s a really big issue because youths are being kept in the same condition. The reasons solitary confinement is forced on prisoners could be small, perhaps they didn’t obey an order or they didn’t eat when they were supposed to eat—really simple things. These issues can be dealt in much better ways than to resort to solitary confinement automatically.”
As a prison abolitionist, Zohrabi believes that prison system should be removed altogether. She shone insight into the reasons behind her beliefs by stating, “I believe that there are better ways to deal with crimes than prison. Prisons haven’t always been used as a way to deal with crime. It’s a relatively new phenomenon. I feel like clearly we are over-incarcerating people in the U.S, when we have 25 percent of world population and 5 percent of the world prison population in prison,” said Zohrabi.
Two years ago the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population. Since then, there have been positive and important changes made. Other states have made similar changes. Mississippi reduced the population in solitary confinement and worked collaboratively with mental health experts to improve physical and mental health of the prisoners and the officials.
While Zohrabi’s ultimate goal would be to work towards entirely removing the prison system, for now, she is focused on making gradual changes. “There are small improvements that could be made to make prisons more humane until they are abolished,” said Zohrabi.
Within the 18 month period that the fellowship program lasts, Zohrabi’s goal is to change the policies of the Department of Correction towards taking more humane and civilized approaches to incarceration.
“Based on my work and the work my colleagues have already been doing on the mass hunger strikes that the prisoners did last year, the department of correction is already changing their policies; however their policies are not good. Actually, they are worse than the previous ones. So my goal until the fellowship is over will be good policies implemented within the department of correction in the way that it benefits the prisoners,” said Zohrabi.
She is currently working on a lawsuit filed against the Department of Correction based on the 8th amendment regarding cruel and unusual punishment, that argues against long-term solitary confinement. Zohrabi expects winning the case will further aid making changes to the policies. “If we win that lawsuit, then the court will order the Department of Correction to make certain changes to their policies. So the policy change is the overall goal,” said Zohrabi.
Once her efforts to end solitary confinement have culminated, Zohrabi wants to continue to work towards improving prisons, “I see myself working in prison law and policy even after that too, since this is the area I want to focus on and continue working on behalf of the prisoners,” said Zohrabi.
Zohrabi attributes her successful acceptance into law school and the projects she has recently taken on party to the professors she encountered at UCR. She especially noted Professors Jayna Brown, Setsu Shigematsu and Dylan Rodriguez as the ones who helped her and encouraged her on her journey.