Alumni Spotlight

Cassandra Shaylor '95: Serving the Underserved

by, Betty Lynne Leary

Cassandra Shaylor '95 is a self-described abolitionist. She dreams of a day when the country no longer relies on prisons as a response to the violence in our society. And while she might have chosen an easier and certainly more lucrative law career, an internship with the National Women's Law Center set her on a path that led to helping one of the most disadvantaged populations in the country.

"In my first year of law school I discovered that I didn't want to be sitting in the classroom every day," Shaylor recalls. "I went looking for a direct services program." She started working with the Women in Prison Project making weekly visits to the women's facility in Lorton, Virginia.

"I was so bowled over by the conditions under which the women lived and by the level of racism that was so apparent in how they were treated," she explains. "They were treated as a throwaway population." Having grown up in a white, middle-class family in a small southern town, the experience gave Shaylor's life new direction.

"Once I'd met these women and heard their stories, I realized I had something to offer because of my background and my law degree," she says. After law school, Shaylor applied to a doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz to work with internationally known activist Angela Davis. Her studies were interrupted in 2000 when she and fellow activist Cynthia Chandler started an organization called Justice Now, a legal training program serving imprisoned women.

"We created Justice Now on the clinical model much like law school," Shaylor explains. "We wanted law students and students from other disciplines to have access to legal knowledge so they could go inside and work with prisoners." The organization, now in its seventh year, performs direct services in a non-reformist way.

"We want to hold on to our view of a world with no prisons," Shaylor asserts. When the state of California recently tried to pass a bill authorizing 4,500 more prison beds, Shaylor and her army of interns secured more than 3,300 protest signatures from the prisoners themselves.

"That's almost a third of the women's prison population in California," Shaylor notes. "Reforms like that only strengthen the system and we are committed to getting the word out about abolition." Shaylor believes that abolition is not the "big, scary thing that people think it is." She envisions ways to solve violence instead of simply moving it into a different place. Shaylor knows firsthand how violent and abusive the prison system is and wonders why society condones it.

"We look back on slavery and wonder how society allowed that to happen. Well, people say the same things about prisons; that it is such an integral part of our society, they can't imagine its abolition." While Shaylor's growing number of colleagues at Justice Now continue to work toward that goal, she took most of last year off to complete her dissertation and graduate.

"Now I can go back to work and be fully there. The organization is so strong and so solid," she says. "It's heartening to see how working here affects these interns. I feel privileged to work in solidarity with these folks. They're just amazing."