Writing the President
(and other leaders)

by Nora Callahan

We think that letters to leaders fall on deaf ears. They don’t, they count but countless of people lose heart when having to send so many through the years. I know that I’ve written four presidents, and could end up writing five before my brother’s sentence is served. After that, I’ll keep writing, albeit we can never write our leaders enough.

You can write a short note, and just talk about your imprisoned loved one, or you opinion about a bill you support, or oppose. The most important thing to do? Write.

Organize your thoughts, try to stay on one subject, don’t write pages, or try to explain a legal case to him. Tell him what you want, what your concerns are. You can write the President no matter if you are in prison, or not. In fact, about 25% of the letters that come to our office, sound as if you were writing to a public official. I often wish our member had sent that letter to the President.

President Obama reading consituent letter
According to a news article in February 2009 on ABC.com, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and staffer David Axelrod made the case for the public to write the new president.

"They help him focus on the real problems people are facing," says Axelrod. "He really a absorbs these letters, and often shares then with us." 

In his first week in office, President Obama requested that he see 10 letters a day "representative of people's concerns, from people writing into the president," recalls Gibbs, "to help get him outside of the bubble, to get more than just the information you get as an elected official."

Says Axelrod, "he did it because his greatest concern is getting isolated in the White House, away from the experiences of the American people...The letters impact him greatly."

So, imagine that he’s reading your letter. What’s on your mind will only be on his mind if we are a visible presence. Studies and reports are only as weighty as the grassroots advocacy behind them. Part of that work is communicating -- not only to advocates but our leaders who make the laws.


The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

Restoring a system of earned, early release to federal prisoners makes more sense than building three more prisons, increasing the federal prison budget to new annual heights.

No state correctional system punishes people to time in prison for “acquitted conduct.” Today I think of the thousands of federal prisoners serving decades-to-life on charges that were never proved to a jury, or people who made plea bargains before the sentencing guidelines were advisory.

There will be sentencing departures available to Veterans in the future. What about vets who are imprisoned now?

My brother is a Vietnam Veteran. He was in the “first battle” of that war, the historical “Operation Swift.” Will he get a sentencing departure twenty years into a 27 1/2 year non violent drug sentence? Will courts rule it new law, or a clarification of old law? Will he be home for Christmas?

Laws that have led to dubious policing tactics and harsh sentencing came at a hysterical period -- something many people know. Most drug laws don’t keep us safe today, only weigh on hearts and taxpayers patience with deficit spending, weakening our communities because there isn’t respect for bad law.

Most states use the easiest and least expensive form of incentivized rehabilitation, granting significant good-time to most prisoners. Every federal prisoner is excluded from such a program of earned early release.

The federal justice system is unusually cruel and destroys most people’s desire to participate in their governance. Instead, they are bitter toward government and its officials. This can describe the mood of prison staff, too. No mood for a country with challenges that should not include keeping title of World’s Leading Jailer.

Please use your office to free prisoners of injustice by offering a decarceration plan to Congress and the head of the Bureau of Prisons. Social science and millions of people support increased good-time for most people incarcerated in federal prisons.

I am one of them.

Nora Callahan

Next Article: Military Service and Federal Sentencing Changes