Career Spotlight: Virginia Hamner
While growing up, Hamner was always involved with women’s rights advocacy, but it wasn’t until she was a women’s studies student at Georgetown University that she realized that she could incorporate her passion for women’s rights with her future career as an attorney.
After her first year at UF Law, Hamner said she needed to engage in more grassroots, progressive politics that she was used to as a high school and undergraduate student. As a result, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in women’s studies while simultaneously earning her law degree.
Advocacy work has always been in her blood. Even as a high school student Hamner was an activist for women’s rights. She worked tirelessly promoting pro-choice issues and organizing peaceful protests. Her advocacy work continued “unofficially” throughout her days at Georgetown University where she was involved with feminist advocacy for the reproductive rights of females.
After her second year of law school, Hamner applied her passion for advocacy work at a summer externship with Florida Institutional Legal Services (FILS). Following the experience she gained while interviewing incarcerated women with FILS, Hamner knew she was destined to practice public interest law and continue her quest to protect incarcerated women’s rights.
Her master’s thesis, which was an analysis of women’s prison narratives, was also inspired by her experiences with FILS. While completing her thesis, Hamner realized the importance of incarcerated women’s advocacy. “Woman-specific issues are overshadowed by the high male population and low percentage of women in prisons,” she said.
From day one of working with FILS, Hamner knew she wanted to work closely with the organization for years to come. The busy law and master’s student continued volunteering with FILS during the school year and then became an Equal Justice Works Fellow at FILS upon graduation.
She said she was thrilled to become an Equal Works Fellow because it “created my dream job.” The program allowed her to combine her passion of representing the rights of incarcerated women and litigation. “Being able to know I’m a representative of some of the people who are the most voiceless is very powerful,” she said.
Hamner is currently in her second year of the Fellowship, which will end in October. But the Vero Beach, Fla., native said she plans to stay at FILS as a staff attorney and has no plans of leaving Gainesville. The people of Gainesville are very much in touch with the community and care about this city, she said. “We love the sense of community — it has a small-town feel but not stifling.”
Although she can’t help all those in need of representation in the prison system or accomplish as much as she wants, she does make her “small victories” ring loudly to help incarcerated women gain equal rights in the prison system. It is important to make sure that the courts pay attention and respect the rights of prisoners, she said.
“We can’t represent everyone, but we hope to empower them to feel better and let them know that there are people aware of the situation and are trying to do something about it.” It is important that they know “their humanity is valued,” she said.
Hamner’s current advocacy project includes the publication and distribution of the Florida Manual for Incarcerated Parents, which is designed to help prisoners navigate the Florida family law system and understand their rights and responsibilities as parents. “Since 85 percent of women in Florida prisons are mothers, we are hoping to reach thousands of incarcerated women with this resource,” she said.
In the future, she said she hopes her advocacy work will reach out to an even smaller portion of the prison population – transgender prisoners. “They are more invisible than woman in the prison system,” she said.
For additional information about the Equal Justice Works Fellowship visit Career Services or www.equaljusticeworks.org.