how i get it done

The Prison Abolitionist Redefining What It Means to Win

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Heading into law school, Rhiannon Hamam knew she wanted to focus on the rights of marginalized and displaced peoples. Growing up in a Palestinian immigrant family in the post-9/11 era, she witnessed firsthand how discrimination and lack of access to resources influenced outcomes in what she deems the “criminal punishment system.” When she attended an alumni panel of public defenders, “it just clicked,” she recalls. “I felt like ‘whoa, this is me, this is what I have to do.’” Now 32, Hamam is a public-defense attorney in Texas, where she represents people who have been accused of all manner of state crimes — often assault, theft, or possession — and cannot afford to hire a lawyer. She’s also worked as a mitigation specialist, arguing (post-conviction) in favor of life for clients facing death sentences. Outside her demanding day job, Hamam co-hosts the 5-4 podcast, a leftist perspective on “how much the Supreme Court sucks,” popular with law students and scholars. She currently lives in Austin with her boyfriend. Here’s how she gets it done. 

On balancing two demanding jobs at once:
Being a public defender is not a 9-to-5 thing. You have clients who are arrested 24 hours a day, so it’s nights and weekends, too. I have to prioritize my salaried position, because I have professional obligations and duties to my clients first. And then, in terms of organizing and integrating the podcast into it, that’s sort of ongoing. We are discussing and outlining and planning episodes and reading a lot, but as much time as it takes, it gets to be a sort of creative outlet. Yes of course it’s work, but it provides a really nice mental break from the day-to-day grind of being a public defender. In terms of just approaching each day, I’m obsessed with my Panda Planner.

On coping with devastating outcomes, e.g., Trump’s execution spree:
I don’t try to fight the difficult emotions. I try to remind myself that feeling extreme pain for somebody else who is in pain, feeling rage at a system that causes such pain, those are signs that my brain is working right. If seeing those things didn’t cause strong feelings, that’d be a sign to take a break, because that burnout means that the work has become damaging to you, and that doesn’t help our clients.

It’s the human connection that keeps me going. You lose all the time as a prison abolitionist. If one of my clients pleads guilty to something and takes prison time, to me that’s a loss in the big scheme of things. Sending people to prison is a loss. But when you’re there with a person, and you have fought for them to get the best possible deal, when you have represented somebody and humanized them in a courtroom — within a system that is designed to dehumanize, that is designed to kill, that is designed to punish incredibly traumatically — I find it invigorating. When you individualize the work, it becomes more sustainable.

On self-doubt:
I am an impassioned subscriber to the idea of “fake it ’til you make it.” I’m good at presenting confidence when I am not necessarily [feeling it]. Self-doubt creeps in when your responsibilities are to an individual in an extremely high-stakes [situation]: when somebody is facing time, or even life, in prison. I find myself doubting, Do I have the skills, do I have the knowledge to do this? I spend a lot of time trying to articulate exactly what it is I feel doubtful about, and then accessing the resources that will address that specific doubt. Usually, that’s people: Am I collaborating with co-workers about this? Am I texting [podcast co-hosts] Peter and Michael about this? I think that also comes from naturally being an extrovert. I need my people fix.

On her favorite parts of the job:
My favorite part of podcasting is definitely recording, just vibin’ with the bros, you know? [Laughing.] Just laughing and venting. It’s extremely invigorating to talk with likeminded people about a specific topic of interest.

My favorite part of public-defense work is talking to clients. I come to work every day because I want to make a difference in the system. I’m extremely motivated by individual clients, by sitting and talking with them, by going to the jail and visiting with them and collaborating on a case. That’s the grind that I really enjoy: connecting with people and feeling like, in meeting with them and talking with them, that I have communicated that they are important and worth fighting for, worth advocating for.

On routines and decompressing:
My nighttime routine is really important. As a public defender, you often have very little control over your schedule. You can feel such a lack of control that, for me, things like a bedtime are really important — it feels like I’m exercising control over a part of my day, where 23 hours of the day, I don’t have so much control. I will generally watch a show or listen to a podcast to mentally separate myself from work. I just finished season one of Search Party. Search Party is hilarious and it’s so good. I really have to monitor my intake of anything in the true-crime genre, because that is incredibly stressful. It’s just too much, right? I’ve just spent ten hours in a true-crime reality show that is real life. I can’t come home at the end of the day and dive into something that’s about all these people who were wrongfully convicted, you know? Then, I always always try to read in bed for at least 15 or 20 minutes, and the vast majority of the time, I’m reading fiction. That’s also part of separating mentally from the extremely [hard] facts that I’m bombarded with all the time.

On words to live by:
The author Kiese Laymon, one time he tweeted, “I’m not interested in being the only one of me in any room. I bring my people with me wherever I go.” That was really important to me, and I think about that a lot and that helps me feel like I’m not alone.

The Prison Abolitionist Redefining What It Means to Win