It’s 11 am on a Friday, and I am walking to the jail from the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) office with my co-worker and my supervisor. We are on our way to conduct our first jail visits. At this point, I’m still not sure what to expect since I know that COVID has added a unique twist to everything that we do at OPD. After receiving a health clearance and checking in with the deputies at the video call facility, we are directed towards our video booths to wait for our clients. My heart is racing with anticipation, and my brain is running through all the questions that I have to go through with my client. What will I be able to ask? Will my client feel comfortable telling a complete stranger various things about themselves?
The screen lights up, and I catch a glimpse of the white brick wall as someone shifts into the view of the camera. I see their eyes for a split second before they dive down to take a seat. I can now only see the top of their head, and I am immediately put off by this sight. I had hoped that I would be able to make eye contact with my client and establish a connection, even if it had to be over a video call.
I quickly realized that would not be the case and that I would have to resign myself to seeing just the top of my client’s head. I started asking some questions, and I found myself wanting to see my client’s face to see if my questions were registering. For the most part, my client understood and gave me the answers I was looking for. The call was brief, I was done in 20 minutes, and I turned to my supervisor and let out a sigh. As someone who values and promotes relationships, I was distraught and unclear what to feel.
We head back to the office, and I start to make some phone calls. As I begin dialing away, I start to think about the work we are engaging in as Jesuit Volunteers. Through the lens of the four values of community, simple living, social justice, spirituality, I can’t help but think of the social justice work I am engaging in at OPD. I am working in a system that often targets communities of color in the name of safety and protection. As a member of the BIPOC community, I am angered at the injustice we have continued to see across the country with the mishandling of police killing unarmed Black people, thus preventing the justice that people have fought so hard to achieve.
I am reminded of a quote that I read recently from Angela Davis, who stated, “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”
The work I do at OPD reflects the work I engage in as a Jesuit Volunteer. At OPD, we strive to “protect innocence, defend the constitution and demand justice, fight for our clients, and hold power accountable.” At JVC, social justice guides the Jesuit Volunteers to “address the root causes of injustice.” Both of these organizations are linked in many ways. By engaging in this work as a Client Advocate for OPD and a BIPOC JV, I know that I am treating the symptoms caused by systematic racism and decades of injustice. I hope that I will be able to engage in work in the office to start tackling the root causes, and I have been able to do that through discussions and training that we have had in the office and through the political organizing that has been happening in New Orleans.
It can be difficult to engage in social justice during these challenging times in our country, but my interaction with clients encourages me to think otherwise. As the year progresses, I will continue to keep this interaction in mind as I help the many people who will utilize the Orleans Public Defenders.
Thomas Vettukallel, who goes by Tomy, is originally from Clovis, CA, but now calls Simi Valley, CA home. He graduated from the University of San Diego in 2019, completing a Business Administration major, and he recently received a paralegal certificate from USD's School of Law. He will be working as a Client Services Fellow for the Orleans Public Defenders Office in New Orleans. In his spare time, he enjoys playing the violin, trying new foods, and exploring.