Alumni Spotlight: C.J. Sandley, '09, Senior Staff Attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center
Caitlin “C.J.” Sandley has advocated for social justice since she was young. She currently serves as a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, where she works on both prison conditions and immigration detention litigation. In the past, she worked as the lead attorney on a lawsuit that the SPLC is still pursuing against the Alabama Department of Corrections concerning inadequate medical and mental health care and understaffing and overcrowding in Alabama’s prison system.
Student writer Elizabeth Phillips interviewed Sandley about her career path, her current position, and how the pandemic affects her work.
After seeing the success her older peers had found after beginning their academic careers at Auburn, Sandley knew this was where she wanted to be. She enrolled after receiving scholarship funding and went on to pursue a degree in Spanish with a minor in social work. She also joined the University's Honor's College.
Sandley said she knew that following graduation, she would use her degree to work within the field of social justice, but she did not know she would become a lawyer. Sandley said, “I thought at some point that I might be a social worker. I also thought about going to seminary and being a minister. But I knew that I was interested in working with Spanish-speaking communities.”
During her senior year, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures and Sandley’s honors thesis mentor Ted McVay encouraged her to pursue personal interests for her final honors thesis. Sandley said, “I was really fortunate to have an honors thesis mentor and a Spanish department who were willing to let me research this intersection of social work and Spanish-speaking migrant issues, which is not a typical Spanish major thesis.”
To fulfill this research, she interviewed a number of immigrants, most of whom she connected with through a Spanish-speaking ministry at a local church.
Following her graduation in 2009, Sandley traveled to Washington, D.C., for the summer and interned with the Human Rights Campaign. This experience opened her eyes to the many paths that exist within both the nonprofit and social justice worlds. For her, the summer experience solidified her desire to return to graduate school.
Sandley’s final position before attending law school was with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama as an organizing and education coordinator. Here she used her Spanish skills daily. Although she loved her job, Sandley realized her strengths aligned more closely with the lawyers she worked with.
She decided to enroll at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio in 2011. Sandley made the choice to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Law due to family ties in the area and scholarship potential. She also learned that it was where Fred Gray, an attorney who represented Rosa Parks and litigated several major civil rights cases in Alabama, attended. Sandley said, “He is my hero and having that commonality of having left Alabama but wanting to come back to do civil rights work made it extra special to me."
Following her graduation from law school in 2014, Sandley completed a federal judicial clerkship in Albany, Georgia. She began her career at the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016. This position began with prison conditions litigation until she moved to the immigrant justice project where she works with migrants from all over the world, including a number of Spanish speakers, being held in detention centers throughout the Southeast.
Her days look different because of the pandemic. This year, Sandley works in her basement attending meetings on Zoom, conducting video calls with clients in the detention centers, or drafting research and filings. She said, “I spent some years working on massive class actions and now I do a bit of both [class actions and direct service]. I really like the mix a lot.”
Sandley said, “One thing I love about the Southern Poverty Law Center is that we are so big and have so many great resources. Internally, we are able to use all the tools at our disposal to try to tackle decarceration.”
Since transitioning to immigration detention work, Sandley focuses on holding the government accountable for their treatment of migrants in detention centers. For example, she files habeas corpus cases for people who have been detained for months (or years). This detainment becomes unconstitutional after a certain amount of time. She works primarily in immigration detention centers in Georgia, including the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin and the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla.
Even though Sandley loves the field of social justice, her job is not an easy one. She said, “We lose plenty of times or we might win but nothing changes, which can be overwhelmingly frustrating and the system of incarceration, racism, and anti-blackness can get overwhelming at times. Not to mention that our clients really struggle. I’ve taken my fair share of calls from clients who were suicidal or thinking about hurting themselves.”
Sandley emphasized the importance of building skills in order to keep doing this work. She said she believes practicing empathy and being an active listener are two of the most valuable skills that a person wanting to enter the world of social justice can have.
Sandley is assured that there is potential to make lasting change within society. For Sandley, getting to work with the clients makes the process worthwhile.