Friday, September 17, 2010

Who's Working for Justice Now?

Flashback:  A FAMM lobby day group from the 1990s.

Why do we do what we do?  Why do FAMM staffers, other advocates, family members, and former and current prisoners work on reforming sentencing laws?  Some of us are working for justice because the laws impacted us or a loved one.  Some of us are in it because we just can't stand unfair, irrational laws.  This periodic column, "Who's Working for Justice Now?", will feature people working on sentencing reform both in and outside of FAMM's office.  We'll start with FAMM's Member Services Director, Andrea Strong.  She's been working with FAMM on sentencing reform since 1991.  Below, she explains why:

Why do you work for FAMM?

Andrea:  I work for FAMM because I want to be part of making a difference.  In 1991, my brother was given a mandatory LIFE sentence for his involvement in a marijuana conspiracy.  I was able to get national media attention for his story.  They included Julie Stewart, President of FAMM, in the piece. After the show aired, I went to Washington, DC and met Julie.  I talked to her for hours and knew she was sincere and really meant to change unjust sentencing laws.  Her brother had also just been sentenced to a mandatory sentence. At first I thought only of our brothers, but one visit to a prison visiting room showed me how much change needed to happen and how much bigger it was than just our brothers!   

What does a day in your life at FAMM look like?

I answer FAMM's e-mail, write and send updates to prisoners, and talk to members.  I have spent many, many hours answering families’ questions, just being there for them, letting them know they are not alone.  I answer many questions about laws, bills, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and many more things.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part is when I have spent a lot of time on the phone with a member whose loved one may have just gone to prison.  This person is usually very broken-hearted and having a hard time adjusting.  When we are done talking and they say something like, "thanks for talking to me, you have helped me so much.  I just needed someone who understands to listen."  Their thanks make my whole day worth it! 
What's the most difficult part?

Andrea:  Telling someone that a bill that passed is not retroactive [and] won't help their loved one already in prison.  It's also very difficult to talk to a parent whose child is facing a very long sentence and has never been in prison before.   Hearing about a kid of 18 or 19 that is looking at a 10-year sentence is very heartbreaking.  Their 20's will be gone by the time they come home.  To talk to a family member whose has several young children and the Dad was just sentenced to 20 years is awful hard too.  It's seems like such a waste of life…I consider all members part of the FAMM-ily.  I just wish I could do more.
What don't most people know about sentencing reform, but should?

Andrea:  That it takes time.  When I started with FAMM almost 20 years ago, I, too, thought a bill would pass and my brother would come home and life would go on as normal.  It took a little while to understand that changes in laws do not happen that fast!  I also find that members think one phone call, one letter and one visit to their congressmen is enough to get the job done.  The better you get to know your representatives and the better they get to know your feelings, the faster changes may come.