Growing up in the working class community of Roxbury, Massachusetts, Andrea James was familiar with the cycle of imprisonment. Many of her friends–even her husband–had done time, and James spent over two decades of her life fighting for those within the criminal justice system, starting as a youth worker serving gang-involved teens and making her way to become a criminal justice attorney.
So in 2009, when she was sentenced to 24 months in a federal prison for illegally misusing funds as a real estate lawyer, the advocate thought she knew what to expect behind bars. “I didn’t think there was much anybody could tell me about how broken and in need of fixing the system is until I walked into that prison as an incarcerated woman,” James told Women in the World ahead of Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit on January 29, where she will take the stage on a panel to discuss how America’s “culture of punishment” can change. “With all of my personal and professional experience, I was still so stunned when I saw the warehousing of these women and the pain of separation,” she said.
Housed in the Federal Correctional Institution of Danbury, the same dwelling as the fictional characters in Orange is the New Black, James found herself “heartbroken” at the reality faced by mothers behind bars. “I had been in and out of prison in my career as a lawyer, I had felt the heaviness of prison, particularly women’s prisons, but I felt it up close and personal when I was separated from my [family],” she said. Even though she was still breastfeeding her 5-month-old child when she self-surrendered, James said her story pales in comparison to those of her jail mates, many of whom were behind bars for non-violent offenses.
“Many of them were caught in drug raids and hadn’t seen their kids since they were looking out of the back of some law enforcement vehicle being taken away. That might have been thousands of miles away from where they currently are [in prison] and many years before,” James explained, adding that across county, state and federal lines, “85 percent” of women behind bars are mothers. Her husband raised their children during her sentence and drove three hours each way on visitation days, but other women were not as lucky.
“There’s this idea that when we send people to prison that them and everyone around them is going to be better off, and public safety will be better,” James said. “It’s not true. The people in their lives aren’t better for the most part, and for most of the women I was in prison with, [they had] connections to the outside and people who missed them and loved them. They had children who desperately needed them.”
Moved by the pain of separation, James worked with other Danbury women to found Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH), using their voices to create a more accurate portrait of jailed women and to express the impact of their incarceration on children and communities. The organization also allows women behind bars to help create more affective policy, a slow-moving process which James believes is just beginning. “I’ve been home for four years now, and it wasn’t a welcoming experience when I showed up in places that were talking about policy and there were no formerly incarcerated women, even very few men.” At first, before FJAH, “they weren’t welcome to having our voices at the table,” she said, but once-jailed women like her, she said, lend vital experience to develop policy more understanding of what James described as “the mental illness of addiction.”
“The general public doesn’t have a firm grasp of what we’ve done by using prison as the default,” said James. “And the majority of the women I was incarcerated with in Danbury did not need to be in a prison, let alone be in a prison for the outrageously long sentences they were serving.” Many women who are coming off the street to sober up while in jail, James explained, “and now in addition to this prison sentence, they have this unbelievable emotional and psychological sentence that they’re carrying around on the inside that’s raked with pain and guilt, with thinking about their children.”
The trickle-down effect that female incarceration has on communities and families is not the only injustice James feels is being served. Compared to male inmates, women behind bars face unique challenges, like poor medical care, low-quality sanitary products, and male guards who often cross boundaries with — and sometimes rape — female inmates. In most states, women and girls who give birth in jail are shackled to beds, a policy James considers “inhumane.” She has written books on female incarceration and, within her organization, formed Sisters Unchained, a six-week long summer program that serves daughters of incarcerated women. In 2014, FJAH proudly conducted FREE HER, the first rally organized by formerly incarcerated women to march on Washington, and held a justice advocacy conference the following year.
Pushing for criminal justice overhaul through legislative action to hone community wellness for families – especially women and girls – instead of prison building is a large hill to climb, but FJAH remains determined. And as women become the largest-growing prison population in the United States–a figure that increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010–James and FJAH believe no time should be wasted on taking action to right these wrongs in order to better serve individuals behind bars and the families that care for them.
Andrea James appears in a panel on America’s “Culture of Punishment” at Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit on January 29, in New York City.
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