Alumna Lisi Owen wins Linda Faye Williams Social Justice Prize
BY B.J. ALMOND
Rice News staff
Alumna Lisi Owen ’07 still vividly remembers touring the Ramsey Prison near Houston on a field trip for the Criminal Justice System course she took during her senior year at Rice. That experience led Owen down a career path that merited her selection as this year’s recipient of the Linda Faye Williams Social Justice Prize from Rice University.
”We were walking through the segregation unit, and the inmates were not doing anything, just sitting around all day,” Owen recalled. ”We had been told not to look at the prisoners as we walked by their cells, but I looked over at a 16-year-old who had been convicted of murder and saw his face. He was so young. It was such an intense moment. I was fascinated by the prison and how a person ends up in those conditions.”
Owen continued to be intrigued by the criminal justice system and prisoners’ rights. After graduating from Rice with a B.A. in political science, she began working on a law degree at the University of Denver, where she became dedicated to prisoners’ rights law as a student attorney in the university’s Civil Rights Clinic. She also volunteered as a legal intern at the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Philadelphia, and she spent a summer advocating for the elimination of discrimination against women in the Philippines.
After passing Colorado’s bar exam in 2010, Owen founded the Colorado Prison Law Project, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in Denver. The project provides legal services to Colorado inmates on a range of issues, including the overuse of long-term solitary confinement, lack of access to medical care, unconstitutional disciplinary procedures and practices, sexual abuse and the reproductive health and freedom of women prisoners. The goal is to ensure that inmates in Colorado prisons and jails are housed in a humane and rehabilitative environment.
”People aren’t generally very sympathetic to prisoners,” Owen said. ”The general public often has some nasty things to say about them.” But she believes that ”when you’re talking about individuals and how people ended up in prison, you have to humanize what’s going on.
”When we go to court, the law is not on our side,” Owen said. ”That can be so frustrating, and dealing with that is a significant challenge.”
Owen said the prisoners’ gratitude is what keeps her from feeling overwhelmed by the legal obstacles. ”When you go and visit clients in prison, they are so grateful that someone has responded to their letters and is willing to talk to them,” she said. ”They feel so isolated, so just knowing that someone is out there caring about them and trying to make their situation better can make a huge difference. That helps keep me going.”
Former Sid Richardson College member Owen credited Larry Jablecki, a lecturer in sociology, with inspiring her to be passionate about social justice through the course he taught.
”Lisi was an enthusiastic and outstanding student in my class,” Jablecki said. ”Our class trip to the Ramsey Prison in Rosharon and her speaking with prison inmates obviously had a profound impact on her decision to become involved in prison reform. Lisi has made me so proud because she is clearly following my exhortation to never abandon youthful idealism to make the world a better place.”
The Linda Faye Williams Social Justice Prize recognizes work that furthers justice in society and enables understanding across boundaries of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, sexual orientation and ideology. It is named for one of the first two black undergraduate students to enter Rice and earn a bachelor’s degree after the university abandoned its charter provision that limited enrollment to white students. Linda Faye Williams ’70 was a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a highly regarded expert on race and gender politics when she died in 2006.
The prize, which includes a $1,000 stipend, is awarded to a graduating senior or a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree (within five years of graduation). Rice’s dean of undergraduates solicits nominations from faculty, students, staff and alumni and forms a selection committee to review the applications. The recipient is announced at commencement.