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Activists rally at Capitol for prisoner rights

Groups seeking to reform criminal justice system

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Several prisoner-rights groups gathered on the steps of the Utah Capitol Saturday to take part in Prison Reform Unity Project 2000, a nationwide campaign for reform of the criminal justice system.

Prison reform advocacy groups spoke to about 50 people concerning prison spending; jailing first time, non-violent offenders; poor prison medical care; and limited visiting rights. Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Citizens Education Project, Citizens for Penal Reform and the Utah Prison Information Network participated in the rally.

Ken Larsen, a member of FAMM, said it's up to citizens to change the criminal justice system.

"When you allow excessive punishment of prisoners, it makes you the abuser. It makes you the rapist. You're responsible for what your government does," he said.

FAMM members distributed a petition at the rally by FAMM that seeks "justice in the spirit of jubilee to President William Jefferson Clinton," asks for the release of non-violent federal prisoners who have served at least five years of their sentences and asks for the review of all federal cases of non-violent drug offenders.

Marianne Johnstone, a member of the Prison Information Network, organized the local rally. Her prisoner-advocacy organization believes in "freedom through knowledge" and distributes a newsletter with articles written by prisoners. The newsletters are distributed throughout the country.

Johnstone spoke about the treatment and rehabilitation programs rather than prison time for many offenders, thus opening up prison space, and reducing the need for new prisons.

Although Johnstone doesn't think all prisoners should go free, she said the percentage of offenders who should be locked up is small.

Families and friends of prisoners, with signs and T-shirts that read "Hope keeps love alive," spoke about their situations, the unfair treatment they believe their loved ones have received and the need for better visitation rights.

The need for better medical treatment for prisoners was also discussed. Suzanne Cunningham, a member of Citizens for Penal Reform, said she has spoken to doctors at the Draper Corrections Facility and found out that prisoners receive HIV tests but not hepatitis C tests because of the costs.

"Let's do something that works for all involved instead of punitive retaliation that destroys families, individuals and communities socially, morally and economically," Johnstone said.

E-mail: jcheney@desnews.com