Marchers support nonviolent inmates

By Crystal Bonvillian 
Montgomery Advertiser
The sign 4-year-old Aven Mitchell of Birmingham carried to the state Capitol building Saturday was almost as big as he was. The message Mitchell's family and other Family Members of Inmates members carried was much bigger -- let nonviolent drug offenders come home. 

The group of about 40 marched up Dexter Avenue and to the Capitol steps to "Shine the Spotlight of Shame on Alabama." According to the group, Alabama state prisons are operating at 185 percent capacity. 

The blame, group members said, lies with the state's drug laws. 

Michael A. Blain, director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, flew from New York to lend his support to the inmates' families. 
"We are here protesting the draconian drug laws here in the state of Alabama," Blain said. "In this time of fiscal crisis, you can't keep jailing people. Alabama has no more money. Stop locking people up." 

Aven Mitchell, 4, of Birmingham participates in Saturday's rally at the state Capitol protesting prison crowding.
Mitchell's family, there Saturday in support of his incarcerated uncle, Carlos Starks, was not the only family protesting the strict drug laws in Alabama. Annie Davis of Dadeville turned out to plead for her son, Kelvin Lamont Shaw. 

Shaw, 28, is in Staton Correctional Facility after being convicted of marijuana trafficking. Sentenced under the habitual offender law, Shaw received a life term. 

"This month we didn't even get a visitation," Davis said. "He complains about it being overcrowded. He complains about the food. He barely can eat in the cafeteria the food is so bad." 

Davis said she does what she can to help her son, a father of four, but that the justice system in Alabama needs to be changed. Radio talk show host Roberta Franklin, who led the rally for Family Members of Inmates, said change will start not with the lawmakers, but with the families. 

"I'm disappointed (in the rally's turnout)," Franklin said. "I got more letters yesterday (from inmates) than the number of people here. Unless the family members stand up and say we're sick of what's going on, nothing will change." 

Franklin, who got a five-year suspended sentence on illegal possession of prescription drug charges in May 2003, complained about the lack of support inmates receive from society, sometimes including their families. 

"Fighting for inmates in the state of Alabama is not a popular cause," Franklin said. "No one wants to do it." 

Saturday's protesters had support from several other organizations, however, including the Alabama Marijuana Party and Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. 

Loretta Nall, head of the Alabama Marijuana Party, told the group the majority of drug offenders in prison are not top drug dealers. 

"They are people like you and me," Nall said. "Poor white people and minorities, the people who can't afford to defend themselves." 

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