Naila Awan LLM ’12, director of advocacy at the Prison Policy Initiative, discusses her career in human and civil rights

From international human rights to voting rights to prison reform, and from policy work to litigation and then back to policy, the career of Naila Awan LLM ’12 has taken many turns, but collaboration and dedication to human rights have been constant themes.

Naila Awan
Naila Awan

Serving as director of advocacy for the Prison Policy Initiative since 2021, Awan received her JD from the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law before enrolling at NYU Law, where she studied international law. After obtaining her LLM, she worked at the United Kingdom-based non-governmental organization Reprieve and then returned to the US, where she focused on voting rights litigation at the American Civil Liberty Union’s Ohio chapter. Two years later, Awan joined Dēmos, a policy and litigation think tank that focuses issues of racial equity and democracy, where she worked as senior counsel. At Dēmos, Awan primarily worked on voting rights litigation and policy reform efforts—leading a project to address criminal legal disenfranchisement. Now at the national nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, Awan helps consult and provide trainings to community organizers and grassroots groups working to end mass incarceration in the United States. In this Q&A, Awan discusses how she came to see civil rights work as human rights work, and how collaboration makes reform more possible.

How did your initial interest in international law transition to your work on domestic cases regarding mass incarceration and voting rights?

I was politically activated at a young age—I remember attending protests with my parents when the United States was going to invade Iraq in the early 90s.I always thought I would pursue a career in public interest work, and by the time I entered law school, I did so with the hope of working on human rights issues. At NYU Law, I was fortunate enough to get to travel to Haiti with Professor Margaret Satterthwaite [’99] through the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. This was after the 2010 earthquake, and we were looking at human rights abuses among contractors who were engaging in sexually exploitative practices against the people who’d been so impacted by the earthquake. I learned so much from Meg about how to listen to and work with directly impacted individuals to understand their experiences and needs.

After completing my LLM, I took a position as a volunteer attorney looking at [human rights abuses involving] drone usage with the [UK organization] Reprieve, on a short-term charity workers visa. After volunteering with Reprieve for about six months, I moved back to Ohio, where I was licensed to practice law, and I began working in a contracted position at the ACLU of Ohio.

At the ACLU, I started off doing policy work: analyzing bills, determining what ways they violated the constitution or other laws, and setting out testimony to oppose harmful bills, or supporting helpful ones. In 2013, the state legislature passed a number of bills curbing voting rights. Because I had done the analysis of these bills, I ended up being moved onto the litigation efforts to fight these laws.

At the outset, I was still wanting to go back towards international work, but over the course of time working at the ACLU of Ohio, I decided to focus my attention on some of the many problems we face domestically. I came to realize that the things that we refer to as civil rights are enshrined in international instruments as human rights, meaning that, in the US, human rights work is civil rights work.

In 2015, I relocated to New York after accepting a position at the New York-based think tank Dēmos.

What kind of issues did you work on at Dēmos?

At Dēmos, my work largely focused on voter registration issues, such as when people register but their names do not get placed on the voter rolls, or when the names of eligible voters are unlawfully removed—or purged—from the voter rolls. In that effort, I was part of the co-counsel team on a US Supreme Court case [Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute], that challenged Ohio’s process of purging individuals from the voting rolls for not voting over a period of four years. I also led the organization’s program on criminal legal disenfranchisement, specifically working towards abolishing felony disenfranchisement, and ensuring eligible voters who are detained in jail can access a ballot.

Are there any cases you’ve worked on that have been most significant to you?

One of the things I’m most proud of is having worked on an election-day class action lawsuit [Mays v. LaRose] to secure ballots for people who were detained in jail on election day in Ohio in 2018. On the day of the election—because you don’t necessarily know who will be incarcerated on election day until the day before—we ended up finishing the brief in the car on the way from southern Ohio to central Ohio, filing the case in the parking lot across from the courthouse, getting called and told we had an argument several hours later, hurriedly printing the briefs, and having a hearing before the judge, who while he couldn’t order class-wide relief, which was understandable, given the short window before the close of polls, did order that our named clients receive ballots that day. So, our clients, who would have otherwise been disenfranchised were able to vote.

I also worked on the 2018 US Supreme Court case Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, where I served as local counsel. That case challenged Ohio’s process of purging infrequent voters from the registration rolls. That case provided me a lot of opportunities for growth, prior to the point of filing in 2016. I had the opportunity to be the primary point of contact for our organizational clients, draft a lot of the briefs, coordinate amicus strategy, work on messaging, and more. Most importantly, it reinforced the importance of working closely with community groups who are the most impacted by specific policy.

We ended up losing at the Supreme Court, despite having won at the Sixth Circuit. But the one thing that that case also really taught me is that just because you suffer a Supreme Court loss, doesn’t necessarily mean the case is over. Because the state only appealed one of the case’s two claims, even after the Supreme Court loss, the case was still live, meaning we were able to continue litigation and ultimately settle the case, extending back-stop protections to prevent eligible voters who were purged from the rolls from being disenfranchised and memorializing additional processes to ensure voters were less likely to be wrongfully purged in the first instance.

What was the transition like moving back into policy work after nearly a decade in litigation?

I never fully stepped away from policy, but I did feel like the time I spent focusing on litigation helped me understand just how critical legislative language is--Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute was essentially a case about legislation interpretation. In addition, while working at Dēmos two things happened: first, I was frequently doing work to support under-resourced organization trying to push for reform to state and local policies and practices, and I found that I really enjoyed that work. And, second, there had been a significant shift in the composition of the courts and I started to feel that the courts, while still an important instrument for change, may not be where I wanted to primarily focus my work. When the position at the Prison Policy Initiative came up, it just felt like it was a good time to shift my primary focus back to policy.

A lot of our work begins when members of a community reach out to us because a new jail is being built in their county. Sometimes there is a well-established coalition who has done work in criminal justice reform work before, but often it’s just community members who recognize that there is a problem with mass incarceration in our nation and are building a coalition from the ground up to oppose the construction of a new--or expansion of an existing--jail.

Being able to help provide support—whether it’s through testimony, through research, through analyzing jail assessments, and saying, ‘Here are problems that lie in the analysis being used to justify the need for a new jail, and here is how to respond,’ as well as connecting those groups to other groups who we know that are doing the same work, so that they can share their experiences and strategies—has been incredibly rewarding.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Posted April 21, 2022.