It was already hot in Washington, D.C., on July 10, but justice advocates turned up the heat on lawmakers. Around 300 demonstrators flocked in from both coasts for the Families for Justice Reform NOW rally, sponsored by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Prison Fellowship®, and others.
A woman with a megaphone led the crowd in a rally cry.
What do we want? Justice!
When do we want it? Now!
Because our families can’t wait.
Yet they continue to wait as imprisoned loved ones pine for access to substance abuse treatment, pre-release custody incentives, literacy classes, job skills training, and more. Rally goers held signs with the names and faces of family and friends unjustly held, their black T-shirts depicting hands reaching through bars, as if stretching out to their loved ones awaiting reform.
“We’ve got a game of ‘Goldilocks,’” said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM. “‘We can’t pass this bill—it’s got too many reforms in it. We can’t pass this one—it doesn’t have enough reforms in it. We’re waiting for a perfect bill.’ We say enough of that. We need reform now.”
Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Doug Collins, R-Ga., were among those attending to advocate for the FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682), which passed in the House in May and now awaits the Senate’s vote. Using an evidence-based approach, FIRST STEP aims to improve the federal prison system through individualized risk assessments and recidivism-reducing programs for all federal prisoners. About 95 percent of those currently incarcerated will be released one day. FIRST STEP would address real concerns for these men and women while helping them become more productive citizens.
The congressmen joined prisoners’ families and other advocates to take the stage and demand change. From improving programs to humanizing prison conditions, they weren’t shy in citing the problems—problems long overdue for correction.
“You’re getting involved in something bigger than yourself,” said Rep. Collins. “We need … to remember everyone is infinitely worthy in the eyes of their Creator.”
One prisoner’s daughter, Hannah, pleaded, “How can we end this cycle?” She shared that her father was incarcerated for six years: “As a kid, it is very confusing to watch adults fight over politics instead of helping people solve these problems. I am honored to join you all in this movement, so we can break these cycles, get people home, and get people [in prison] the help they need.”
The issue also hit close to home for Kennedy, 16, and Kendall, 13, who traveled from Alabama to share about their struggles. Their father has been incarcerated for 13 years. Memories of him were a blur, Kennedy said with pain in her voice. But their hopes for him were growing—especially if reforms like the FIRST STEP Act gain traction.
“Yes, people are sent to prison to serve out a sentence,” said James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. “But let’s make these prisons places of restoration and rehabilitation.”
Together they hoped for reforms respecting the dignity of people behind bars. As rally goers braved the heat, passionate speakers reminded them to remember those behind bars with little more than rotary fans to allay the heat.