Sharanda Jones, serving life without parole for crack cocaine, has been an extraordinarily effective advocate for herself and her clemency case. With her family and lawyer, the 47-year-old federal prisoner from Texas has been part of a wide-ranging (and successful) media campaign to tell the public about the indefensible sentence she received in 1999.
What can others learn from Sharanda’s success?
The Clemency Report talked with her Dallas attorney, Brittany K. Byrd, an amazing person herself, about how Sharanda and her family have made the public aware of her case. Some things outside of her control have contributed to Sharanda’s success. but most of what’s worked are techniques that other inmates can and should use.
Sharanda’s advantages included:
- She’s a woman. Whether deserved or not, women attract sympathy more easily than men. Women, in particular, respond empathetically to mothers and children in need.
- She has a fantastic support group on the outside. This group includes her pro bono (free) attorney and, even more importantly, dedicated friends and family, including daughter Clenesha Garland. (Clenesha is wtih Sharanda in the photo.)
- She has a truly outrageous sentence and a case with disturbing racial overtones. What’s harmed Sharanda so greatly — the indefensible sentence, the racial bias that caused it — puts the spotlight where it belongs: on how her case reflects the worst of our legal system.
Of course, racially biased and outrageously long drug sentences are par for the course in the federal legal system. The secrets to Sharanda’s success are techniques that other inmates can replicate, especially if they have committed advocates on the outside.
Here’s what works:
- Run an effective change.org petition. It’s easy to create a change.org petition. It’s hard to make it work well. Sharanda struggled at first. She couldn’t get attention or supporters. Then, a change.org staffer called and suggested rewriting the petition from a daughter’s perspective, not a lawyer’s, says Brittany, the lawyer. Result: Responses soared immediately. “Switching to the daughter’s tone made all the difference,” Brittany says.
- Use good photos. A good picture really is worth 1,000 words. It speaks to the heart. The goal is to show the prisoner is a living, breathing human being, not an inmate number. Photos with children are especially powerful. Hug your loved ones. Smile. Weldon Angelos‘ petition is a good example as our other photos on The Clemency Report.
- Be everywhere. Sharanda has a web site, a Facebook page and a Wikipedia entry. A family friend built the simple but effective web site. Its a four-page site that many (young) person can do at little cost. The site has all the information someone needs on her case, plus sample support letters and a link to her change.org petition. Comments aren’t allowed on her web site and Facebook page. (This would only bring out haters at their ugliest.) Comments can be made on change.org petition page.
- Frame the issue correctly. Make your case in human, emotional or moral terms. Do not make a legal or technical argument. Use everyday language. Be plain spoken, heartfelt and sincere. Authenticity is far more important than grammar. The Guardian newspaper in England framed Sharanda’s issue beautifully in a headline on an article she wrote: “I’ve served 15 years of my life sentence for a drug crime. Can I go home now?” Here’s another example for crack lifer Robert Shipp.
- Be persistent. Expect to work long and hard, telling your story many times, in different ways, to different audiences. The family member on the outside is usually the most important person in a campaign because prisoner’s have limited ability to communicate with the outside world. Still, the inmate needs to work hard, writing letters, thank you notes and e-mails if possible.
None of this guarantees success. The odds are always against the inmate. Sharanda is still behind bars, after all, for now.
A clemency campaign can be financially challenging. Even the cost of stamps can be a burden. And, of course, the right lawyer helps. This process has been made easier at the moment for federal inmates by Clemency Project 2014.
Even better for Sharanda, Brittany K. Byrd has been on the case since 2009 when Brittany was a second year law student at Southern Methodist University. Brittany has prepared a 200+ page clemency application, which includes many letters of support for Sharanda.
Family advocates, though, should stay focused on breaking the public silence and invisibility that hides most people in prison. Clemency is mostly about changing hearts and minds, not arguing legal points. The family advocate should “tell a story” so the world knows that a deserving person has been behind bars for far too long.
Sometimes good things really happen.
Note: Sharanda Jones has gained four signatures on her change.org petition in the time it took to write this article. Check her count now. How far above 218,575 is she?
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To appreciate the amazing Brittany K. Byrd (Barnett), read more about the young corporate lawyer, her mother and the non-profit group (Girls Embracing Mothers) she founded.