Prison advocates seek more support
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Prison advocates seek more support 

Two women urge relatives of inmates to flex political muscle 


News staff writer

MONTGOMERY A suburban Birmingham civil engineer and a single mother from Montgomery are attempting to bring together people who would rather remain in the shadows. 

Sherry Swiney and Roberta Franklin are inviting people whose commonality brings them no pride. They are relatives of convicts in Alabama prisons. 

Swiney and Franklin, prison advocates, think it's time the spouses, parents, children and friends of prisoners united to flex their political muscle. 

Swiney, 58, of Alabaster, pushes that message on her Web site and Franklin shouts it across the airwaves in Montgomery. 

"We are not fighting for the guilt or innocence of no one," said Franklin. "We just want the fair treatment of all inmates." 

Later this week, the women are sponsoring the first statewide Families of Inmates Conference at the Ramada Inn-Statehouse in downtown Montgomery. They expect at least 800 people to attend the Friday and Saturday workshops. 

Different roads led the women to this crusade. Swiney's husband is in prison. Franklin, 47, is a recovering drug and alcohol abuser. They met at one of several rallies Franklin has held to discuss prison issues. 

The social cause turned political for Franklin after she noticed an unsettling disposition from many politicians when she talked to them about prison conditions or sentencing guidelines. 

"I picked up the attitude from politicians that because the inmates can't vote, so what? The inmates can't vote, but the family members can and if they vote in bloc they can make a difference," she said. 

There are 28,000 inmates in Alabama's prisons. Reports of prison crowding, abuse by guards and lack of medical care for inmates have prompted court and legislative action. 

The women, one black and one white, say their efforts are unique for Alabama in several ways. They have no political affiliation, reach out to all races and both genders, and have an issue few people want to get behind unless they are personally affected. 

Information from Swiney's group P.A.T.R.I.C.K Crusade, named for her husband is sent internationally to thousands of other prison reformers, she said. 

She and Franklin want the conference to sprout into a lobbying and political action committee. 

Franklin organized two prison reform rallies last year and drew crowds of up to 600. The weekend meeting will have speakers on issues these families are concerned about : marriage and relationships, rehabilitation programs, counseling, money matters and transitioning from prison to home.

Lawmakers have been invited. Prison Commissioner Donal Campbell has agreed to come. They'll eat together, talk together and learn together. 

"I want family members to know they are not beat down because their families are incarcerated. They need to start paying attention to their local representative and what they are doing and what they aren't doing," Franklin said. 

Her outspokenness has led three people to sue her over things she's said about them on her morning talk radio show. One case was settled, a $10,000 judgment was issued against her in another and the third is pending. 

Carolyn Eaves, a rival talk-show host, filed a defamation of character claim against Franklin in July. She said the three suits show Franklin does not deal "fairly" on the radio. "It goes to the credibility of the person," Eaves said. 

Franklin's most serious brush with the law, however, came in November when she was arrested and charged with possession and receiving controlled substances. She won't talk about the case until it's over, she said. 

"I still respect the system of justice. I would be wrong to get on the air and try to depict it as someone is picking on me. I won't do that. It wouldn't be right." 

Franklin and Swiney are funding the conference from their own pockets and with help from family and scattered supporters. 

Relatives of convicts are asked to pay a $20 registration fee, which covers two meals and the workshops. The conference begins at noon Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday and goes into the evening each day. 

"This is our first conference, but we have so many people offering to do workshops, we will have to do another. The movement is just so strong," Swiney said. 

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