Magazine Feature / People

Lawyer seeks alternative to prisons

Sometimes where you grow up can make a big difference in your life.

Exhibit one: Hannah Seigel (BA English, gender and women’s studies ’04), who grew up in a small town in Alaska called Seward. Its main industry? A maximum security prison.

Seigel’s profession today: a Colorado deputy public defender.

But the career choice wasn’t a given.

“I’m not one of those people who has always wanted to be a lawyer,” she says.

After her education at the University of Denver, she pursued social work and interned as a domestic violence worker back home in Alaska.

During that internship she says she saw firsthand the systemic problems in the criminal justice system.

“I started thinking a lot about restorative justice and not just how it can help the alleged victim of crime, but also how a restorative justice paradigm can heal the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator and eventually entire communities.”

Seigel says as a child she was well aware of the prison industrial complex that ruled her small town.

“There [was this] ever-present dichotomy between the children who lived in Seward because their parents were in prison and the kids who lived there because their parents worked there.”

She recalls seeing friends enter the justice system as juvenile offenders.

“It was my upbringing in this environment that drives me to devote my career to creating alternatives to prison,” she says. “I’ve seen how prisons tear apart communities and families. I believe most people [in prison] should be placed in alternative programs.”

Interestingly though, when she first entered law school she had no interest in being a public defender.

“To be honest, I felt public defenders were part of the problem.”

But after spending a summer at an Alaska public defender’s office, she says all her preconceived notions turned out to be false.

“I saw how a good public defender could change the course of an accused [person’s] life.”

Today, she says she loves her job even though her caseload hovers around 100.

“Anyone who believes in the stereotype that public defenders don’t work hard should come and spend a day at my office,” she says.

She’s starting a nonprofit called Learn Your Rights in Colorado (LYRIC) to educate people about their legal rights.

“Many communities who have the most police interaction know the least about their constitutional rights,” she says.

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