As a formerly incarcerated person, he was hitting dead ends when trying to file grievances after facing multiple assaults in a New York City jail. He decided to take matters into his own hands.
His mother sent him some books on prison laws and taught himself as much as he could about pro se litigation and prisoner’s rights.
“I was following all the steps that I needed to follow and I couldn't find any assistance. I had to delve into the world of prison law. I didn't know what any of it was. I didn't know what a Section 1983 lawsuit was. I didn't know the difference between filing a civil rights claim in state court versus federal court was,” he said. “I learned about prison law and I was able to advocate for myself as an unofficial attorney. I was a pro se litigant, and it was really hard work.”
Now, as a law student, he’s formalizing some of the foundational knowledge he became familiar with while incarcerated. And he is already finding ways to advocate for others.
In September, Caballero had the unique opportunity to participate in a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill, marking the 20th anniversary of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). On a panel with other survivors of sexual abuse behind bars, he addressed lawmakers and policymakers, emphasizing the urgent need for additional support to protect survivors in prisons, jails, and detention centers. The session was organized by Just Detention International, a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Representative Bobby Scott, both initial supporters of PREA, were present for the discussion. The experience in Washington, D.C., highlighted the ongoing challenges despite the unanimous passage of the legislation two decades ago, he said. He is also on the Board of Directors and the Survivor Council for Just Detention International.
“Inevitably what keeps me going and doing this work is that people are suffering. And if I have a voice and I'm able to use it, whether that's through human rights work or in another year and a half when I pass the bar and could potentially use my voice as an attorney doing civil rights work, then that's what keeps me going. People need help. And when I'm an attorney passing the bar and graduating Albany Law, I hope that I can be a more powerful voice for people that need help,” he said.
Despite the inherent frustrations and burnout associated with addressing issues of abuse and suffering, the unwavering commitment to helping those in need propels Caballero forward—and always has. Prior to his arrest and incarceration, he worked as a journalist, an EMT, and engaged in human rights work in Palestine. His most recent job before law school was as a paralegal for the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm committed to ending mass incarceration and fighting for the rights of incarcerated individuals.
Caballero is finding ways to make the most of his law school experience. During his 1L year, he was elected as Class President and worked on wellness-focused initiatives for the class, such as regular therapy dog visits during more stressful times in the semester. The Albany Law community, he said, is among one of the most supportive he’s seen, a welcome alternative to the doom and extreme that one sometimes pictures when envisioning law school.
“I was 40 years old when I first walked onto campus. I'm the first person in my family that went to law school, one of the first in my family that went to college, aside from my brother. I was nervous because there's stigma that attaches when somebody has a formerly incarcerated title in front of them. But I really have had so much support here. The staff, the faculty, the professors have been super amazing. My peers have been really great,” he said. “I realized that being upfront about all of this stuff actually is really empowering to some people. I've had people come up to me and tell me, 'Oh, I have a criminal record as well. Oh, I was formerly incarcerated as well.' And it's really amazing to be able to just own it and assert it and realize that there's so many people out there that you wouldn't have even known, have a similar past as you. So that has been really emotionally rewarding for me.”