2018 PFIG Recipient Bradley Skeen
Journal Entry #1 - June 8, 2018
The first few weeks of my internship with the Department of State have been full of acclimation, adaption, and so much learning. My knowledge of the topics and programs I’m working on has increased exponentially in just a few days. Altogether, I think it’s fair to say that my experience has been slightly different, and a great deal better than, my “internship” as a server at an Outback Steakhouse last summer.
So, you may be wondering, "what are you actually doing in your internship thus far?" Fair question. Within the State Department, I’m working for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) in an office focusing primarily on the Middle East and Africa. INL essentially provides consultative and fiscal aid to other countries in order to bolster their criminal justice systems and deter illegal activity. Though the Bureau’s name may sound a bit punitive, the work I’ve done thus far has primarily centered around the prioritization of civil rights and public safety. I’ve mainly focused on criminal justice issues in Lebanon and Syria and have learned more than I could have imagined about their respective legal systems and the nuanced challenges they face.
As someone who knows more about domestic criminal justice policy than that of other countries, I’ve been shocked and fascinated by the disparity between the U.S. and Lebanese legal systems and have come to realize how much I took for granted before my internship began. The disparities in the roles served by key legal figures (judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys) are myriad, resulting in different processes and overall power dynamics. That being said, though Lebanon’s civil system differs in many ways from the U.S.’ use of common law, it’s been exciting to research potential implementations of American criminal justice policy in Lebanon. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying and writing on legal representation, the use (or lack thereof) of plea-bargaining and bail, and the implementation of parole policies in Lebanon. Other pursuits that have kept be busy include evaluating grant proposals from different NGOs to conduct projects and attending an array of interesting events including presentations on conflict resolution in Yemen and radicalization in detention facilities.
This is the first time I’ve worked in a bona fide office environment. It’s the first time I’ve consistently worn a blazer to my place of work. It’s also the first time I’ve been around a group of people who know so much about international policy and who travel across the globe on a regular basis. I work across from someone who just got back from a multi-month trip in Abuja, Nigeria. I report to, and collaborate with, people who meet with ambassadors and foreign leaders on a regular basis. I’m lucky to have this opportunity and am looking forward to the weeks ahead!
Journal Entry #2 - July 6, 2018
I’ve just finished the sixth week of my internship at the State Department and things are moving right along. To begin this entry, I just want to address how amazing and, at times, overwhelming it is to be in a metropolitan environment like Washington, D.C. As I alluded to in my last post, I spent last summer working at an Outback Steakhouse in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Though the roads can be a little busy due to tourist traffic, Nags Head is an entirely different world from D.C. when it comes to its lack of busyness and sense of urgency. This summer, I’ve loved being able to attend fascinating events, ranging from a talk on plea-bargaining policy to a discussion on Libyan electoral policy, throughout the city. Though the metro often epitomizes claustrophobia and the streets serve as an adulterated platform for road rage, I’m having difficulty imagining myself living anywhere else than D.C. after I graduate this spring. Though I’ve only spent a handful of weeks here, I already feel distinctly connected to it.
D.C. aside, I’ve found myself growing increasingly impressed by those around me and the projects with which they engage over the past few weeks. It’s a bit surreal to observe the way that the distinct decisions of individuals can influence hundreds, even thousands, of people. Though I still only know about 15 percent of the acronyms referenced in the meetings I attend, my general knowledge, as well as my sense of perspective, has irrefutably progressed since I wrote my first blog post.
In terms of the projects I’ve been working on, I’ve been able to build nicely on my prior research regarding pretrial detention and plea bargaining policy in Lebanon, and am now reading about and writing on similar issues in an array of countries. Many nations throughout the Middle East and North Africa lack holistic, state-sponsored systems providing legal aid, meaning that indigent defendants regularly face trial bereft of any formal representation. While the Miranda rights, and all that they entail, occupy a concrete place in the average American’s psyche due to their regular depiction in the media, a similar perception does not exist in countries like Lebanon, Tunisia, and many more. The right to a lawyer is viewed largely as a suggestion and an inhibitor of efficiency. I’ve spent the past few weeks developing policy recommendations and proposals targeted at increasing awareness and, in turn, fueling the establishment of a state-funded system of legal defense. After all, if so little parity continues to exist in the relationship between the prosecution and defense, practices like plea bargaining will likely serve as an enabler of, rather than a deterrent to, injustice.
In my remaining four weeks, I look forward to learning more about the portfolio my office covers. Both the Middle East and North Africa are incredibly volatile areas, ensuring that the policy realms in which they reside are (almost) overwhelmingly protean. Each meeting or event I attend leaves with me a dozen new dilemmas or points of confusion to consider. I hope to spend the remainder of my time listening more than I speak and learning as much as I can from those around me.
Journal Entry #3 - August 8, 2018
My time at the State Department flew by! I finished my internship last week and am now left to consider the perspective I gained and the various lessons I learned. First and foremost, I'm very thankful to have had the opportunity to work in a bona fide office environment prior to graduating and entering the working world next summer. While exposing me to some of the deeply impressive work done in the realm of international policy, my internship also afforded me a vital source of pragmatism and practicality moving forward. Namely, my experience demonstrated that, when it comes to policy, it's not the end of the world if your first job focuses on a topic different from, or tangentially related to, your ideal subject matter. Versatility is valued, and often necessary, and being openminded is also essential.
Broadly speaking, the most valuable aspect of my internship was the insight it provided regarding the way justice is maintained and administered across the globe. While the U.S. obviously has a variety of policy insights and monetary support it can provide to other countries, it was also fascinating to learn about the way other systems can inform, and help improve, our nation's current carceral and judicial practices. Let me provide an example. Lebanon's prison system, for instance, is one that seeks to prioritize the human rights of those incarcerated above all else. This in turn fosters a carceral environment that strives to promote rehabilitation as much as possible. Though Lebanon, like every other country, fails to consistently fulfill the theoretical principles to which it strives, they do exist as a basic framework that informs the way that Lebanese justice actors regard and treat those who commit crimes. I think incorporating certain restorative attributes of the Lebanese system could help shift the U.S. away from its current retributive policies.
In the final weeks of my internship, I worked on a number of projects covering entirely new portfolios and policy areas. First, I conducted research on possible policy options to deter and combat transnational organized crime in Mali (and the West Africa region in general). Since I had limited prior knowledge regarding this topic, I relied on those around me, including those I could talk to in the office and those based in West Africa I could reach via email, to broaden my understanding of the crime dynamics in the region. Though there's very little that can't be found on the internet, this summer has definitely shown me how vital it is to have the persepective of those working on the ground, especially when it comes to international policy. In addition to my work on Mali, I served as a liason between my bureau, INL, and the FBI as we sought to re-work a prior contract prescribing funding amounts that no longer applied. Though I found the former project a bit more engaging, I also recognize that experience with programming and budgeting is of the upmost importance, especially within the State Department.
To conclude, I'm so grateful for all of the support and guidance I received from so many people throughout my internship. The ten weeks I spent at the State Department revealed how much I have yet to learn in regard to criminal justice, and I look forward to building on the knowledge I gained this summer during my last year as an undergraduate. Lastly, I'm so appreciative to have received the PFIG grant because it made this summer possible!