On April 12, former public defender and current judge Tejas Bhatt visited the English 6 Doing Time: Prison Literature class to speak with students, answer questions, and share insight about America’s justice system. Students had the opportunity to gain a new perspective and a deeper level of understanding about the subject matter discussed during the course.
English teacher Heidi Hojnicki said that the purpose of the class was to talk about why we imprison and if we are effective in achieving the goals of the justice system. “We aim to hear the voices of those who are affected by imprisonment,” she said. Throughout the semester, students read essays and poetry and watched various documentaries. Some of the texts include H. Bruce Franklin’s “Prison Writings in 20th Century America,” Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish,” and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Ms. Hojnicki said that she invited Mr. Bhatt five years ago, and his unique perspective really intrigued her. “He talked about what happens from moment of arrest to trial/verdict and how long it takes. He talked about justice not being met out,” she said. “His work as public defender helped him view each case as different remembering that they are people and that was very interesting.”
This year, he spent time answering students’ questions. Senior Kevin Wan said that Mr. Bhatt covered many topics. “He particularly explained the philosophy of the modern judicial process – how the court does not only consider the classification of the crime, but also the severity of its impact on society, the relative motifs of both sides, perhaps the psychology of the defendant, and the amount of resources and time each side has preparing for their case,” he said.
Senior Erin Bowen said the discussion was very interesting. “The coolest thing about him was that he used to be a public defender and is now a judge. His experience is very different, and he talked about both of his jobs,” she said. “It was harder for him to share his opinions as a judge because he is really not allowed to have an opinion. It was interesting to see what goes through a judge’s mind when they are looking at a sentence and he said tries to be as fair as possible.”
Senior Rita Zhao said she agreed it was very interesting and that she understands the justice system better. “It provided a new and interesting perspective on the justice system,” she said. “What we are reading in class is mostly writings by prisoners, but hearing from a judge was really different and interesting.”
Kevin said that he learned a lot about the goals of the judicial system. “I learned how behind all the grand ideals and goals we have for our judicial system, as the class tends to focus on, the actual process behind each single case can be very complicated and tedious,” he said. “Therefore, we need to acknowledge that any reforms are a daunting task that can affect how every case should be treated because often specific cases required specific approach to ensure that all parties are treated justly, which, if done right, can be very time consuming.”
Erin said that some of the topics covered in class have really sparked her interest. “We talk about how to fix our justice system, how it works, how legislation impacts law enforcement, the judiciary system, and how certain decisions lead to mass incarceration,” she said. “We also learn about disproportionately represented groups and factors which influence who goes to jail.”
Kevin said that Mr. Bhatt discussed racism present in the system today and was fascinated by it. “It is that many times personal beliefs and experiences that define what ‘justice’ means and propagate debates/criticism,” Kevin said.
Erin said speaking to Mr. Bhatt really was helpful. “It really tied it all together for me. I guess we talked a lot about prisons, but I never really knew how the sentencing works, and the injustices in sentencing,” she said. “Mr. Bhatt knew the inside of the defendant’s mind and affirmed some of the things we talked about in class.”
Ms. Hojnicki said that she enjoyed Mr. Bhatt’s visit and hopes to continue these types of learning experiences for her students.