Alumni Spotlight: Jewish leadership for criminal justice reform with Sammy Bosolavage

Published Jul 19, 2016
Sammy Bosalavage headshot

In 2014, Sammy Bosalavage joined our Service Corps in New Orleans, taking a position at the Promise of Justice Initiative and working with people currently and formerly on death row. She knew she wanted to work at her placement since her time as a student at Tulane University, when she heard her future supervisor Mercedes Montagnes speak on a panel about the inhumane conditions on Louisiana’s death row. That panel started Sammy on a journey that led her to embrace a path of Jewish leadership for criminal justice reform.

As a Corps Member, Sammy provided a wide range of services to clients on death row in addition to those who had recently been exonerated and are now out of prison. When exonerated clients were released from prison, she took the lead on helping them adjust to their newfound freedom, assisting with everything from getting a new social security card and driver’s license, to arranging for medical treatments and doctors’ appointments.

During that year, Sammy had a transformative encounter with one of her clients, a man named Glenn Ford. In March of 2014, Ford was released from Angola State Prison after spending more than 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Not long after his release, Ford was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Sammy was part of the team that supported Glenn during his final months. She managed a fundraiser for his medical expenses, helped sort out end-of-life documents with his attorneys, scheduled his in-home health care, and kept track of his doctor’s appointments. And she was also there with Glenn as he passed away. The experience deepened Sammy’s love for the city of New Orleans in a profound way:                

“For me, New Orleans is the place that saved Glenn Ford. He was arrested and convicted in Caddo parish, a place that sentences more people to death per capita than any other county in America. While Caddo tried to take Glenn’s life, New Orleans worked to save it. New Orleans houses the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana and the New Orleans Innocence Project, the two organizations that helped Glenn prove his innocence and walk out of Angola. Once outside of Angola’s gates, another New Orleans’ organization, Resurrection After Exoneration, helped Glenn by providing him with a place to live and other critical resources he needed. And finally, New Orleans was the place where Glenn’s life was ultimately and most beautifully honored and remembered through his funeral. His funeral was the most ineffable, fantastically New Orleans experience I have ever had the privilege to be a part of. Famous Jazz musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, and social justice warriors came together with Team Glenn to honor his life. That is the New Orleans that I know and love.”

At the end of her Service Corps year, Sammy was hired on as a paralegal and outreach coordinator at the Promise of Justice Initiative, where she continued her work for the next four years. Sammy left the Promise of Justice Initiative in the summer of 2018 to move back to her home state, New York, and attend NYU School of Law. During her time in law school, she interned at the Brooklyn Defender Services, the Office of the Appellate Defender, the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, and the Southern Center for Human Rights. Sammy is currently finishing her final semester at NYU Law and will be returning to the Promise of Justice Initiative as a NYU Public Interest Law Center Fellow.

Sammy’s experience with Avodah, and her work with Mr. Ford, led her to the belief that the death penalty is her issue. She made a point of approaching it from a Jewish place, devoting her free time to traveling to Jewish communities throughout the region, sharing her story, and teaching what Jewish tradition has to say about the death penalty. When back in New York during law school, she spoke at her childhood synagogue about the death penalty and the criminal justice system, which led to the creation of a criminal justice taskforce for the synagogue to get involved in direct services and advocacy related to criminal legal reform.

“Avodah has given me more than I could have ever imagined. One of my role models, Bryan Stevenson, says that in order to effectively do justice work, you need to get proximate to people in the system. Avodah enabled me to get proximate to the injustices of our criminal justice system in a way that I could have never anticipated. I am so grateful for the experiences I had through my Service Corps year, and the experiences I continue to have as part of the Avodah alumni community. However, Avodah did not only enable me to get proximate, it allowed me to merge my passion for social justice with my Jewish identity alongside a group of people who understand the two are inseparable.”

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