Andrea Strong worked at FAMM practically since day one. She was our Director of Member Services, and over the years she talked to countless families with loved ones in prison. She knew firsthand the pain of having a loved one behind bars; her brother was given a life sentence for marijuana charges.
I don’t remember exactly when, but some years ago we at FAMM started hearing a lot about child pornography offenders and the draconian sentences they were getting. We began to get calls from family members struggling because their loved one was in prison for this kind of offense. The problem was that as an organization, we didn’t know enough about it to really talk to them – and more than that, it’s a very tough subject.
I remember saying, “I don’t even know what to say to these people. I don’t know how to handle that. I’ve got grandchildren, and I don’t understand it.” But the calls kept coming in, and talking to family members is at the heart of what we do at FAMM. We couldn’t just ignore them.
We all knew that we had to get educated about the topic – that was key. So I started learning more and picking up those calls, doing the best I could. And then one day, I had an “ah-ha” moment. I was talking to a mother and she was crying. Her son had gotten a lot of time for possession of child pornography and the family was reeling. And I started thinking to myself, “You know what? She’s not crying any harder or any less than my mother did,” and my brother was a marijuana offender. When they put my brother in prison, my mother cried just as hard as this lady. Her grief was no different.
FAMM saw then that we should all be able to talk to this mother and others like her, and make it clear that she was welcome to our group, that we were here for her, no different from the next person. I think over the years, we’ve managed to do that. At least when they call me, I let them know that they don’t have to feel awkward in discussing that with me. Now, I welcome these calls. I want more than anything to help them know they’re not alone.
The dads are calling more these days. It used to be just the moms. It seems to be a little harder for the dads. That’s their son, and look what he did. But I think they’re recognizing how ridiculously harsh the sentences are, and how despite the struggles they have with what their son did, they see that system is just not fair.
Over the 29 years I’ve been picking up that phone, some common threads have gradually revealed themselves to me. For example, a lot of the family members I’ve spoken with have loved ones in prison who were molested as children themselves. Their families didn’t know about it when they were experiencing it – the truth came out after they were in the criminal justice system. And now the families are horrified, lost, and scared. They tell me about the outrageous sentences their loved ones are serving. Many families are anxious for their loved ones to get some sort of treatment in prison, but it doesn’t happen. I listen to them, sometimes I cry with them, pray with them.
When I get off a call like this, I always think: Why aren’t we giving this man treatment? We’re just putting him in a box. We know now what happened to him, why it all went the way it went, so let’s try to fix it. Twenty years in a box does nothing. I am not saying that these people didn’t break the law. They need punishment. But they need real treatment, too, and as we always say at FAMM, let the punishment fit the crime.
I think the bottom line is that the solution is certainly not just throwing away these men. Warehousing people doesn’t fix our problems, regardless of the crime. Lawmakers are starting to see that – except around this issue. This crime just gets ignored. Nobody wants to touch it, because it’s distasteful.
So I would say to anyone who is advocating criminal justice reform, please think about families dealing with having someone behind bars for this kind of offense. Think about their pain; it’s just like yours. At FAMM, we are firmly against “sentence shaming,” and I think that really is important here. All of us need to fight for justice for everyone.
There have got to be people somewhere willing to stand up for reform around this issue. If it’s not all of us here in our FAMMily, who will it be?
Do you agree that our criminal justice system should be fair and effective for everyone? Help us in the fight and join FAMM.