Juliana (Ratner) Andonian ’17 went to law school for one reason and one reason only: to get people out of prison.
She is now fulfilling that mission with an even greater sense of urgency as the coronavirus pandemic has stricken people across the United States and most acutely in the prison system, where conditions make safety measures like social distancing and frequent hand-washing impossible. Andonian is a staff attorney for FAMM (the organization was formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums but now uses only the acronym since it expanded its work on incarceration issues). She helps to coordinate a Compassionate Release Clearinghouse that recruits and trains volunteer attorneys to seek the release of people in federal prison. Its COVID-19 Project works to free those who are most vulnerable to serious illness and death because of the virus. More than 1,000 attorneys have joined the effort, including some of her fellow HLS grads, but many more are needed to handle the caseload.
“It’s a really meaningful thing to do,” Andonian said. “I don’t think people with medical vulnerabilities should be sentenced to die in federal prison.”
Elizabeth Bailey ’12, an associate at Buckley in Washington, D.C., took on the case of one of the most vulnerable people imaginable. Her client is in a persistent vegetative state, which meant that Bailey had to not only argue for compassionate release but also secure a place for long-term care, a challenge made more difficult by the pandemic. With the help of medical and social work consultants and Andonian and other attorneys, she was able to obtain a federal court order securing the client’s release as soon as a care facility is confirmed, which Bailey expects will happen soon.
“When the order came through, we were in shock,” she said. “There was so much emotion and relief. When you work on something like this, you end up getting to know the most intimate details of a client’s life. You think about them when you’re not working, wonder how they are doing and worry for their family.”
In addition to that case, Bailey has worked on other compassionate release and parole-related issues at her firm. Her work with FAMM has inspired her to talk to family and friends about the effects of the pandemic in prisons and write about prisoners’ rights.
“After the pandemic calms and we all return to work, this will continue to color my practice and, indeed, my life,” she said.
Of course, not every FAMM case ends with a release. Mario Nguyen ’17 represented a man more than 60 years old with respiratory problems and other health concerns who was sentenced in 2018 to a 10-year term for drug-related charges. Despite Nguyen’s argument about the risk the person faces by remaining in prison, the judge denied the motion, contending that the man had not served enough of his sentence to warrant release. Since the decision cannot be appealed, according to Nguyen, the client may have to serve at least four or five more years—if he is able to survive.
“You get close to these people, you care about them, and you realize how bad their medical conditions are,” he said. “If ordinary people are worried about this disease, you can only imagine what somebody who’s trapped in a building feels like.”
Although he works in white-collar criminal defense as an associate at Locke Lord in Dallas, Nguyen emphasizes that criminal law experience is not required for volunteer attorneys—just a desire to address issues of incarceration and criminal justice. Those issues have long motivated Andonian. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, she said she “grew up in a family that strove for liberation,” with parents who joined protests and with extended family members who were brought to trial and faced prison time for what they believed in.
Before coming to HLS, she worked for six years for an organization called Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, which uses literature to empower 16- and 17-year-olds who have been charged and incarcerated as adults in D.C. jails. She wanted to do more for them, but people told her she couldn’t because she wasn’t a lawyer. So she decided to become a lawyer. And FAMM has allowed her to do exactly what she wants to do.
Beyond the legal work, she appreciates that she gets to care for people who are often marginalized and forgotten. She tries to speak every week with one 71-year-old man who was recently given a compassionate release from a federal prison that was a COVID-19 hotspot. His joy for life even after 25 years in prison inspires her, as do many of the people on whose behalf she works.
“In terms of people in prison, my goal is to elevate their voices,” said Andonian. “I have learned a tremendous amount from them. The people who I work with are overwhelmingly gracious to me, and I am humbled by that.”
She hopes that the releases precipitated by the dangers of COVID-19 will show that compassionate release will not harm society but will instead expose the public health dangers caused by prison conditions. While those conditions directly affect incarcerated people, they also affect those who work in prisons who return every day to the outside world and those with whom they come into contact every day, she says.
“Our health and safety and well-being and integrity are all bound together with each other,” she said. “We have to take care of everyone. We can’t lock people up and ignore them. There is an urgency I’m seeing around that I hope will stay.”
For more information and to learn about pro bono opportunities, go to famm.org.