PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — At age 11, Michael Fuller found himself detained by police for a crime he didn’t commit.
In the wake of a residential burglary in Fuller’s hometown of Littleton, Colorado, someone at school pinned the crime on him. The sixth-grader was brought to the local police station for questioning.
“I had no knowledge of the criminal justice system,” said Fuller, now a rising senior at Brown. “I was scared out of my mind when a police officer screamed at me that they had evidence I’d broken in. I didn’t know they could lie to you and say whatever they wanted to encourage a confession.”
The incident exposed not only the American justice system’s flaws, Fuller said, but also his own privileges as a white male with access to legal resources. It propelled his desire to support the underserved.
At Brown, the public policy concentrator is a campus leader for the Petey Greene Program, which brings student tutors into maximum-security prisons up and down the East Coast to teach math, reading and other subjects to incarcerated students. He’s also spent time interning at the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank dedicated to reducing incarceration in the U.S.
This summer, Fuller is taking his criminal justice work to the next level with Still She Rises, an Oklahoma-based public defense nonprofit dedicated to representing mothers in criminal, family and civil court. Fuller is one of a handful of students participating in the first ever Brown in Tulsa Kaiser Fellowship Program, which pairs undergraduate students with organizations tackling some of the biggest challenges the heartland city faces.
The program is a partnership between Brown’s Swearer Center and the George Kaiser Family Foundation and part of a broader collaboration that includes the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
As an intern at Still She Rises, Fuller spends many of his days combing through prison databases to find women who may need the organization’s help.
“We’ll take on clients who have been arrested for absolutely anything, from criminal offenses to traffic tickets,” he said. “The criminalization of poverty is really what we deal with.”
In Oklahoma — ranked 44th nationally in college degree completion and first in women’s incarceration, according to federal data — the poor are deeply underserved, Fuller said. In the Sooner State, Medicaid is unavailable to all except caretakers, the blind and the disabled; the rate of food insecurity is higher than the national average; and landlords can evict tenants who have been arrested, even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime.
Matters are even worse for Oklahomans who are both poor and facing criminal charges, Fuller said, painting a picture of the challenges the team at Still She Rises sees frequently: Those who land in county jail are often held there for days or weeks before trial if they can’t afford bail. Meanwhile, life on the other side of the bars goes on: Employers rip up missing employees’ paychecks and fire them; bills go unpaid and incur prohibitive late fees; and kids who go without a caretaker can be turned over to the state.
“If you’re poor in Oklahoma, the state is working against you rather than for you,” Fuller said. “It’s gratifying to be part of an organization that advocates for women who are fighting layers of institutional oppression, primarily racism.”
Still She Rises, he said, brings to Tulsa the model of holistic defense, offering incarcerated mothers not only pro bono representation but also access to social workers and client advocates to help them minimize the reverberating effects of an arrest. The organization aims to break the cycle of poverty and instability in which many mothers find themselves.
“We help mothers with everything from negotiating down astronomical court fees to addressing charges of child neglect and abuse,” Fuller said. “Child neglect is so seldom what it sounds like. It’s really women who are unable to access resources afforded to wealthier moms. It’s the intersection of over-policing and a lack of resources.”
For Fuller, who aspires to become a public defender, the experience is a precursor to what he hopes will be a life and career seeking justice.
“Legal work is really appealing,” he said. “Many people can’t decide whether they’d rather take direct action and help people in the short term or concentrate on long-term policy solutions to systems of oppression. Still She Rises can do both — they can file a lawsuit suing the city of Tulsa for its cash bail practices while also working directly with affected citizens.”
Fuller noted that the Brown in Tulsa program is unique in that it allows students to learn not only from their work experiences but also from one another. Each student in the program concentrates on a different topic, from birth control advocacy to housing equality, and the whole cohort often meets over dinner to compare notes.
“I think there’s something valuable in leaving College Hill and learning about how things work elsewhere in the U.S., especially as part of a program that concentrates on a single place instead of a single issue,” Fuller said. “Brown in Tulsa is really committed to supporting this one community and providing the resources to do so.”