One afternoon in 2010, Andrea James sat on her corner bunk at the federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut. Looking at the sea of bunks spread before her in C-dorm, she wondered, “What kind of change could we make if we all united?”
Since her release from prison in 2011, James has been working non-stop to make that dorm-room vision come true. She wrote Upper Bunkies Unite, a book that is part memoir part manifesto, to connect her personal experiences to the decades of legislation fueling the explosion of women’s imprisonment. She started Families for Justice as Healing, a Boston-based organization that advocates reducing incarceration in a multitude of ways, from helping a woman fight draconian drug war charges to stopping the construction of a new jail. And she traveled around the country connecting with other formerly incarcerated women.
Last December, James joined forces with some of these sister activists to form the country’s only national organization founded and run by women who have been—or still are—in the prison system. The organization is called the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and its mission is twofold: to inject the “voices and expertise” of women who have been affected by incarceration into the conversation around policy, reform, organizing, and services; and to support the work that currently and formerly incarcerated women are already doing, often in isolation and with little encouragement.
“The whole point of the Council is a sisterhood,” James explained. This sisterhood exists in state and federal prisons across the country, but there have been few avenues for women to recreate it once outside, which has hobbled their efforts. “The only way we’re going to have that kind of power and create policies that impact our lives and our communities is to create this network [of women],” she stated.
While mass incarceration and the bloated criminal justice system have garnered increasing attention in recent years, the same cannot be said for the experiences of the country’s growing population of incarcerated women. Women’s prison issues, such as struggles to parent and maintain child custody, sexual assault, and reproductive health care have often been overlooked in larger discussions of prison reform. But even when their concerns—like inadequate health care, draconian sentencing, and aging behind bars—overlap with those of their male counterparts, women’s particular experiences continue to be ignored.
James recalls often being the only formerly incarcerated woman at meetings and forums about criminal justice policy. Though she always added her voice and experience from her seat in the audience or during the question-and-answer period, she recalls that “being so vocal wasn’t met with open arms. That was a lonely time for me.” But she persisted, drawing strength from the support—and weekly letters—of the women she had left behind.