Volume 12, Number 2, 2003

Parent TIMES

Advocates for the powerless

As a husband and wife team, Alvin Bronstein and Jan Elvin of Washington, D.C., are what you might call a "power couple" who've spent their careers and their volunteer time fighting for the little guy.?

Bronstein started out in private law practice in New York in the early 1950s. He did volunteer work for a variety of civil rights organizations, helped organize voter registration initiatives in the South and eventually moved to Jackson, Miss., to work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). After a stint at Harvard as associate director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government in the late 1960s, he returned to the South to establish an interracial law firm in New Orleans with a training program for young African-American lawyers.

In late 1971, shortly after the Attica Prison rebellion, the director of the ACLU called Bronstein about a national prisoners' rights initiative they were planning. By May 1972, Bronstein was serving as executive director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, a position he held for the next 25 years. The organization is credited with changing America's prisons from 19th-century dungeons to 20th-century prisons with increased professionalism among prison staff.

"We created an awareness of the fact that prisoners do have rights. We argued cases before the United States Supreme Court. We established various rights of prisoners, such as the right to a hearing before being disciplined, the right to uncensored communication with lawyers or government officials and the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment like getting beaten up by guards," Bronstein says.

Now working privately as an attorney and consultant, Bronstein continues to spend a great deal of time on prisoners' rights and other human rights issues, but his attention is often focused on international issues. While working as a consultant to the Marshall Fund--a foundation established by the German government to encourage the exchange of ideas--he was present at a meeting in The Hague, Netherlands, on the day the Berlin Wall came down. The group assembled there, including justice officials, human rights activists and prison officials from around the world, discussed the dramatic changes that were taking place in the world.

"With the Berlin Wall coming down, all kinds of countries were looking to develop new justice systems, subSaharan Africa was moving away from military dictatorship to democracy and the same thing was happening in Latin America," Bronstein says. "So, we formed an organization called Penal Reform International (PRI), and to everyone's amazement, it is now the largest criminal justice reform organization in the world."

As a PRI board member since 1990, Bronstein has been working to bring international standards to bear on United States criminal justice policy. Surprisingly, the U.S. lags in many areas of penal reform. "For example, we are one of only four countries in the world that still execute juveniles, along with Iraq, Congo and Sudan, notoriously brutal countries," he says.

In the month of August alone, Bronstein met with government leaders in Mexico about prison policy options and the dangers of private, for-profit prisons. He spoke to several different groups in Albuquerque and Santa Fe about the impact of 9/11 on civil liberties and resulting problems in immigration policy. He then went to the American Bar Association's annual meeting in San Francisco to chair a section on promoting international human rights treaties to U.S. policy-makers.

Meanwhile, Jan Elvin has been working closer to home, helping victims of domestic abuse. She, too, has spent her career involved in advocacy work for various causes, including consumer issues (working for Ralph Nader) and prisoners' rights (she met her husband when they both worked for the ACLU National Prison Project). Then, after caring for her mother through a period of serious illness, she turned to volunteer work for the Montgomery County (Md.) Abused Persons Program. When funding became available for a position to assist Hispanic victims of domestic abuse, Elvin found herself with a new profession.

"I was a Spanish major in college and lived in Spain for three years, translating and teaching English as a foreign language," she says. "It was very exciting for me to be able to use my Spanish again. It wasn't too hard to pick it up again, and the women were very forgiving about my on-the-job training. They were just so grateful that there was anyone who could speak Spanish to them at all."

During her 18 years with the National Prison Project, Elvin had worked with women on death row who had been convicted of killing partners who had abused them and their children. At that time, many states did not allow evidence to be introduced in court showing that the women had been victims themselves. Elvin says she liked the idea of being involved in a program that could offer support to people before they turned to violence against their abuser.

Elvin's work took place in the District of Columbia Courthouse, where she helped abuse victims get protective orders and walked them through the process of going to court, including all the paperwork for petitioning the judge for protection and the hearing itself. The entire process could be frightening for an Hispanic woman not familiar with the system. Their husbands or partners often threatened them with deportation or with taking the children as well, Elvin says.

With a Spanish-speaking advocate for Hispanic victims of abuse, women in Montgomery County no longer had to turn to their bilingual children to translate about "what Daddy had done." The 8-year-old daughter could be sent to play with toys while Elvin talked to her mother privately. "A little thing like that can be very rewarding," she says.

Although budget cuts recently eliminated her position, Elvin says she hopes to return to the initiative if funding is restored. Or, she says, she will find another avenue to serve as an advocate for those less fortunate.

Both Bronstein and Elvin say they intend to continue to fight for the "little guy," and encourage others to do the same.

"When I speak at law schools, many students think the great exciting days of civil rights are over," Bronstein says. "But, there is still so much that needs to be done on big issues like the environment, immigration, international law disparity and human rights. There are enormous opportunities for young people to make a difference."


Alvin Bronstein and Jan Elvin are the parents of Benjamin Bronstein, a University of Delaware sophomore majoring in criminal justice.