By: Sakeinah Perry
This Student Section story features Bex Kolins. Bex is a 1L here at NCCU and we were able to touch on a wide range of topics ranging from prisoner rights, NCCU’s application process, and their journey to law school.
Where are you from and what motivated you to come to law school?
I am originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, but I have been in Durham for about 4 years. I wanted to come to a school in Durham because I am rooted in Durham and want to remain here. I graduated from undergrad about 7 years ago and honestly, I have been wanting to NOT go to law school for a long time. Since graduating from undergrad, I had been doing work with people in prisons, trying to advocate for folks to help them access things that I have the access to help with. I had been trying to do that work without a law degree and just found myself facing a lot of barriers. There is only so far you can go in advocating for folks in prison without a law degree and ultimately in order to best support people in prison I realized I needed to become a lawyer.
What made you want to work with people in prisons?
I was living in DC after I graduated from undergrad and was doing work to help trans and queer people living in the city to help them access basic needs—housing, clothing, food. A friend of mine who is a transgender woman had recently been released from prison and she wanted to start this project to support other trans women in prison. We created this sort of newsletter for people in prison that was a compilation of advice, support, and stories from other transgender people in prison and legal advice and information and we would then send this newsletter to them. We would also advocate for transgender women who wanted to begin taking hormones or have clothing that is affirming of their gender. Usually, trans women are in men's prisons and will not have access to women’s clothing, hormones, or other gender affirming care. So, we were able to advocate for folks, spread information about what they needed to file on their own, and help people get those needs met. Doing that work really showed me that people in prisons still have needs that are being actively denied. Since then I have tried not to just work with people who are trans but all people who are in prison and who are denied basic rights. I believe that prisons do not protect people or keep people safe and are actively harming people and so I argue that if people are in prison, their needs and basic rights are actively being denied.
You mention this newsletter which I thought was a cool concept. Are you still doing the newsletter?
We did it for a couple years but since it has kind of fell to the side. There is this organization called “Black and Pink.” They are a national organization based out of Boston. They have this massive database of people in prison who receive a newsletter each month. People from the outside and inside submit stuff. Just helps to let people in prison know they are not forgotten and let them know what is going on in the world. I think it’s also really beautiful to be connected to this massive community and to know that one of the pillars that keeps prisons up is its ability to isolate people from their community. I think getting to let folks know that they are not alone is a way to start to tear down that isolation.
Switching gears to you personally, what challenges have you faced on your journey to law school?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is related to my experience applying to Central. I am trans and I do not identify as a man or a woman. When I applied to other schools there was an option to not disclose your gender or sex. However, at Central, there are only two options, male or female. There isn’t even a “Do not wish to disclose” option. That has put me in a bind because it does not represent how I want to be identified but also may affect how I am identified when I become a lawyer. Specifically, when I graduate from here. Maybe it is something that I can resolve by the time I graduate. I know that I am not the first people to have to deal with this but it is a frustrating hoop to go through.
You bring up a good point because someone can go back to your application later and try to use that information against you.
Yeah, it is something that is annoying to say the least I’m sure.
I think a relevant thing happening in NC over the past few years has been the passage of the bathroom bill. It would have been interesting to be in law school doing that time. DC passed an ordinance stating that all single stalled bathrooms must be gender neutral. Which was cool and I think DC has a lot more people pushing for these things. I do see Durham pushing for these things as well.
So, we talked a little about the application process. What other things do you feel like Central is behind on in terms of catering to a student who does not identify as male, female, or are trans?
I think the application process is significant. All my professors are very open, kind and respectful. I think that is a wonderful thing and I thought about how that would happen at a school that did not focus on students as much as Central does. I think the bathrooms here is a thing I am trying to deal with as well. However, the application process is a huge thing. My profile in Banner is based on my application. And there is no room to change it. The name that I prefer is “Bex” but my name legally is “Becks” and even though I do not have a problem with my legal name, the name that I prefer is significant. I can’t even have my name on my email changed because of how I applied and what is legally my name. I know that I have to change my name legally for certain things to apply, but I would like my email to have my preferred name. For some folks who haven’t changed their name legally can be hard.
I think anyone can identify with that. We want to be called by the name we prefer.
Transitioning into your goals after law school. I know that you are a 1L, but what thoughts have you put into your career after law school?
I know the type of work that I want to do. I want to work people in prison; maybe post-conviction work either civil or criminal. I like the idea of litigating against prisons and for the rights of people in prison. As a politic of mine, I identify as an abolitionist so, more than reform, I do not think prisons should exist and we should be creating other types of infrastructure to support people instead of prisons. So, however, I can make that work [I will]!
Can you define “abolitionist” as it means to you?
The way I explain it to folks is that prisons operate to throw people away, to dispose of people. I don’t believe that any person is defined purely by their mistakes, which is a thing prison does. I don’t believe that anyone who is outside of prison hasn’t made mistakes either, albeit some more serious than others. More than a prison abolition I think it [centers around] this idea that we should not throw people away. We all mess up we all make mistakes. But it is possible to be held accountable for your actions. There is a way to support that person and the victim and I think we should be thinking of how to do that instead of discarding of people, particularly when the people who are being discarded of in prison are being systematically targeted and punished. Folks who are in prison are predominantly Black and Brown and are in for crimes of poverty. I think, what would it look like if we were to get to the root problem of why people are in prison? Why do people do the things they have to do to survive and can we create infrastructure that better supports them?
I write to a lot of people in prison and have built deep friendships with people who have done pretty terrible things and I can see how human they are. I think we need to invest in alternative methods and build other infrastructure to support people and not funnel people into prisons.
How did you begin building such close relationships with people within prisons?
The organization I mentioned earlier (Black and Pink) has a pen pal database of people who want to be written to. So, I just started writing. Currently, I write to about 15 people. I keep up with folks and I think most of the people have consistent themes in their life stories—they’ve been targeted by the system in a variety of ways, from the moment they were born. It is sad how our society has failed so many people. Even if you make one mistake you can end up in a cell for the rest of your life. I think communicating with people in prison, reminding them that there are folks outside who are thinking of them and looking out for them is a really great way to remind folks that they aren’t forgotten and to combat this idea that prison tries to isolate and destroy communities.