Poetry in prisons led 2014 Scholar for Justice to law school

September 05, 2014

Susy SobelWhen Susy Sobel decided on law school at Seattle University, she searched the Internet for two things — an apartment and the nearest prison.

"I must be the only person who Googles prisons when they're moving somewhere," she laughed.

The unusual search was inspired by Sobel's past six years of community activism in Los Angeles, where she taught creative writing workshops at adult prisons and juvenile probation camps with a program called InsideOUT Writers. The work is what led her to law school, and she wants to keep it going.

Sobel is Seattle University School of Law's 2014 Scholar for Justice. The three-year, full-tuition scholarship goes to a student committed to public interest law, service and leadership, and academic excellence.

A 2012 graduate with honors from Pitzer College in Claremont, California, Sobel decided to pursue a law degree with the eventual goal of working on policies to reform the juvenile justice system.

"Some of my writing students were still going through the court system, and I had the opportunity to sit in on some of their proceedings," she said.

"It opened my eyes to the legal system. Having these 15- and 16-year-old boys getting life sentences, knowing they'll spend the rest of their lives in prison — I found that so appalling," she said. "I want to use my access and privilege to work for change."

In one case, she did just that, negotiating with the district attorney to offer her writing student a plea bargain and reduced sentence, making the case that he was a good candidate for rehabilitation. She also joined the Anti-Recidivism Coalition to help draft a California bill that offers youth offenders, after 15 years, an opportunity to have their sentence reconsidered by a judge. The bill passed and was signed into law.

Sobel, center, created a video of the spoken word piece "Closer to the Cuts" with her writing students.

Sobel, center, and her writing students created a video of their spoken word piece "Closer to the Cuts" about juvenile justice. This screen shot is from that video.

Sobel spent her middle school and high school years in Seattle, and chose Seattle University School of Law partly because it meant coming home to family but also because of the law school's focus on social justice.

She was especially encouraged during orientation to hear Professor Bob Chang address ongoing racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, right away during his welcoming remarks. "I just had this feeling that this is definitely the right place for me," she said.

Sobel credits her maternal grandmother for her dual interest in creative writing and social justice. "She was from North Carolina and was very active in the civil rights movement, so I heard all of her stories," she said. "But she also read poetry to me."