Episode 4 - How to Engage in Protecting Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls
In this episode we continue our conversation with Andrea James, founder and Executive Director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, founder of Families for Justice As Healing, author of “Upper Bunks Unite: And Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration”, 2015 Soros Justice Fellow and a 2016 RFK Human Rights Award recipient.
She is giving some recommendations on sythematic changes aimed at preventing incarceration of women and girls as well as some advice to people working or wanting to work in these areas on how they can support community based and community led initiatives aimed at preventing the incarceration of women and girls.
For more on Andrea James’ work check out: https://www.andrea-james.com/about
To order Andrea James’ book: “Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration”, go to: https://www.amazon.com/Upper-Bunkies-Unite-Thoughts-Incarceration/dp/0988759306
For more on the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls for Justice Andrea James’ check out: https://www.nationalcouncil.us/
If you are interested in joining the work to end incarceration of women and girls go to: https://www.nationalcouncil.us/clemency-works
To donate to the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, go to: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/free-her
For more on the Free Her Institute Think tank, go to: https://www.freeherinstitute.com/ and purchase items that support the work of The National Council and ending incarceration of women and girls here.
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Episode 4 – Interview with Andrea James – National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls – Part 2
[00:00:00] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Hello and welcome to Just Access! Too many individuals and groups around the world today are denied access to justice. Such access is vital for making human rights effective and securing human dignity, especially for those in a situation of vulnerability such as women, children, minorities, migrants, or detainees.
[00:00:29] In this podcast series we talk to academics, international legal experts and human rights advocates about hot topics in international law, with the intention to expose and highlight situations of structural injustice, as well as creatively exploring unusual situations and solutions to such issues, aiming to improve the protection and enforcement of rights contained in international treaties.
[00:00:53] I’m Dr. Miranda Melcher, a Senior Legal Fellow at Just Access and in this episode I speak further with Andrea James. She is the founder and Executive Director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. She’s also the founder of Families for Justice As Healing. She’s the author of “Upper Bunks Unite: And Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration”, as well as being a 2015 Soros Justice Fellow and a 2016 RFK Human Rights Award recipient.
[00:01:22] I hope you find this episode interesting and inspiring.
[00:01:28] You in fact kind of already brought up the question that I would love to ask you, which is about the idea of kind of focusing the attention on what happens when women and girls get to prison.
[00:01:48] And obviously at that point, in a lot of senses, it’s too late, right? A lot of things have already gone wrong, so that’s not a particularly useful starting point. And I was wondering, given your expertise, given the work that you’ve done what should the rest of us know and understand and be working to help in terms of preventing women and girls from even getting to that point?
[00:02:12] Andrea James: Well, you know, we really did a lot of thinking about that. We did a listening tour in 2018 around the country. They were led by formally incarcerated women and women and girls who were directly affected because they were caring for loved ones who are incarcerated. They live in the most entangled communities and had to navigate life in very under-resourced neighborhoods because that seems to be, you know, what Eric Cadore described to us back in 2011-12ish called million dollar blocks, where literally a million dollars is spent by city state agencies that aren’t for the investment in the people in those communities, but for entangling them – paying for the carceral systems that are oppressing and controlling their lives.
[00:03:08] And Boston actually made it into that study and it caused us to say, let’s do a listening tour. And we did, for two and a half years, we did a listening tour around the country led by these incredible women and girls in the most entangled communities. It actually culminated in July of 2018, where we did a massive town hall with 35 communities in different parts of the country, led by the women who were part of this research, at the same time, on the same day, so women all around the country knew that other women and girls were doing this same process.
[00:03:44] And then we took all of that and dumped it on the table, and then over the six month period we convened 10, you know, small groups, kitchen tables, all the way up to 50 women convenings in different parts of the country, and put all of this stuff up on the wall and everybody got to sift through it.
[00:04:06] Everybody got to contribute to what this looks like. And then the sisterhood named it “Reimagining Communities”. The name itself was a direct pushback. There have been large nonprofits in this country that led this thing called “reimagining prisons”. For years, they extracted millions of dollars out of the criminal-legal reform ecosystem that really should have been going to these smaller nonprofits and in community groups that were working on regaining control of their people in their communities.
[00:04:42] Instead, this narrative that shaped the entire country and the criminal legal work that was being done, was being shaped by this large nonprofit where they didn’t have people who were directly affected leading any of their projects. They had a few formally incarcerated people tucked into them, but they led this narrative that was very harmful to us called “reimagining prisons”.
[00:05:06] We’re tired of reimagining prisons and we got tired of that narrative and that was coming together at the time that we were culminating, we were wrapping up this listening tour and town hall. So the sisters named it “reimagining communities” and we built buckets of what we think, because at the National Council we work in three buckets of litigation, legal, and policy making – that’s one bucket, reimagining communities is the middle bucket and we have third bucket, which is an actual national campaign to close women’s prisons and reallocate those resources. But that middle bucket is the most important one to us. Really!
[00:05:48] Because as much resources as we put into running right now our battleground states for closing the prison are the New England states, and it’s six states of intense distributed organizing that’s going on to 1. raise awareness, 2. shift public opinion, 3. close the prison and that’s long, long term work, right?
[00:06:07] We don’t know from year to year are we gonna still have the funding to keep our boots on the ground, our field organizers, I mean, it’s a massive project, but then the middle bucket is the bucket the sisters created from answering every question under the sun, not only about the lack and the need and the carceral systems in our community that we need to get out, but what brings you joy?
[00:06:32] What, what brings you, what do you wanna see that you see in other communities that you don’t see in your own? Where do you have to go with your grandbabies to take them to a safe place to play in the park, to a clean space, to ice cream shops? Where do you have to go out of your communities? Can you buy flowers in your neighborhood?
[00:06:49] I mean, we looked at our communities like they would just desolate. They would just, you know, no flower shops, no ice cream shops, none of these things that bring joy to us. And so, um, we asked that question and then we went about creating reimagining communities as a result of all of those responses and their buckets that we create models of.
[00:07:10] We carve out hyper locally, and I’m talking like a five block radius because it’s really the only way very hyper locally to figure out how do you begin the inroads of, um, Restoring communities that have just been under the boot of the violence of the state through police, prosecutors and prisons, right?
[00:07:36] And these communities have just been so familially disrupted, economically disrupted. And so all of those buckets in reimagining communities address that. That to us is the most important piece of our work because as we’re fighting to stop new prisons from being built, stop the expansion of prisons, stop $6 million going to a little four room county jail, all of these things that we are in the fight against, you know, stop women from being moved from Rosie’s on Rikers Island to another jail, blah, blah, blah.
[00:08:09] Stop a new 50 million women’s prison. Stop the mega prison in Alabama. I mean, these are all projects that we are currently in. We know that the system’s not going to just roll the sidewalks up and go away at our behest. It’s not gonna happen. We’re gonna have to organize our people out of the systems.
[00:08:29] We’re gonna have to organize women and girls and children. We don’t leave the little boys out in a reimagining boots on the ground organizing and it can only be done. It’s such a massive problem. You can’t be overwhelmed thinking about the problem, but you have to find a really effective way of doing hyper local organizing that gets people reengaged, that lets people know.
[00:08:52] And it starts with just saturating that tiny radius with absolute love, fresh produce, mutual aid, you know, just love. Our director of reimagining community, Sashi James, she happens to be my middle daughter, directly affected as a child of incarcerated people, who was just phenomenal, loves her community, just began to take all of these pieces and to get some boots on the ground.
[00:09:20] Other young women and men organizers who are organizing in our reimagining communities neighborhoods and then it begins, you see it, it’s beauty. It just begins on its own to kind of take on a life of its own. And that’s what we want. We call ourselves framers. We’re not there to lead communities.
[00:09:39] I live in one of our reimagined communities. So I’m a resident who participates. But our job is not to lead. Our job is to introduce some ideas, listen to the community, help to build the infrastructure for what they want, but to build out most importantly the people’s assembly process. We learned from Rukia Lumumba and her brother, uh, Chokwe Lumumba, who’s the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, one of the poorest cities in the country, who just had this horrific experience with lack of drinking water, that they’re just trying to climb out of and overcome.
[00:10:15] But we learn from them the people’s assembly process and it’s literally those that we elect to represent us have to roll their sleeves up and come in to the neighborhood, put their title on the shelf and become residents just like us, and then leave with the rack of what we need them to advocate for, not the other way around where we don’t know who you are, you just get elected, you never come into the community, even if you live here, that’s the only time we see you pulling in and out of your driveway or so forth and you’re not getting direction or you think so highly of yourself because you’ve been elected to this position you think you have all the answers, when you have not done this huge, vast opportunity to listen to people who are the experts in the space.
[00:11:03] So the solutions I think come from the people. Reimagined Communities is just a framework. There are pieces that, you know, sisters come in from all around the country. We’re building a think tank now as we speak, asking folks to go onto our think tank website and buy a t-shirt. That would help us. We’re not building it with nonprofit dollars.
[00:11:26] We don’t wanna be confined in ways that we find ourselves in our nonprofit C3 work. So it’s a very grassroots, organic way of bringing people on a regular and consistent basis around the table and in a different space outside of their, the hard work in their neighborhoods, to bring them to a peaceful space, to have a little bit of retreat and then, you know, slowly cook for each other and have communications with each other and strategize and think together in a space where these sisters can come out of the very difficult, emotionally draining, physically draining work that we all do every single day. So we’re building that space.
[00:12:12] It’s not easy. The nonprofit industrial complex doesn’t really provide you with space that you can control in the way. So if people own land and they say, I don’t wanna give up my land, but I wanna do this project, which is my situation, I’m not gonna turn over a legacy of my families to the nonprofit industrial complex to get support, you know, to build a space for retreat for women.
[00:12:38] But we have to. It’s like those of us who are in leadership in these organizations that are doing abolitionist work, we just have no equity in that, you know? And so we give our life to this work and can’t imagine doing anything else. Honestly, even when we try and take a sabbatical or something, it’s like, you know, you’re looking at the ceiling like, I got work to do here.
[00:13:04] So, you know, I gotta get a lot better at that because we’re no good to the movement when we think we can’t step away for a minute and it only helps when we do. And we need a space to go to when we do that, but it’s so extractive is my point. You know, it’s so hard to do these things and the way that we want to do them unless it’s funneled through, the guidelines, the rules, the legalities of what is acceptable through the nonprofit industrial complex.
[00:13:33] There are sisters that own land or inherited land or little plot of land, or they wanna do something and they can’t. They might have a healthy budget this year that could afford it, but we can’t use that without turning over everything that we have to the nonprofit industrial complex.
[00:13:52] So we’re building it and you know we are grassroots folks and so we started out selling dish cloths. Back when I first came home from prison I worked outta my trunk. We had a folding table. My husband would go out and help me and by then my son was two and a half, and we would literally fight to raise awareness of the women we were asking President Obama to give clemency to. And we would have their pictures and we would tell their story. That’s literally how we started. And it grew from there. But we had no money. I would sit and the sisters inside the prison would crochet dish cloths and send them out to me.
[00:14:26] My husband bought me a sewing machine and it was therapy for me. I was going through a lot of post incarceration trauma. You can’t unsee what you see in prison. You can’t unemotion that. You also left behind women that you know, if you don’t do something are going to die in prison. So the sewing was very therapeutic for me.
[00:14:46] And so grandma, our matriarch, was still inside. We were fighting to get grandma home. We did get her home. Phyllis Hottie, she’s home now, doing well, and she’s our matriarch of our work. She had the whole prison making dish cloth. Now, uh, we don’t sell dish cloth anymore, we will if somebody asks for some, but we, we have a think tank t-shirt and so we’re raising the money for this very important retreat, research think tank space by selling these think tank t-shirts. So if anybody wants to know about that they can ask me about it.
[00:15:20] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Wonderful! Well thank you for explaining so much of the promise of practical advocacy, the challenges of it, you know, really taking us into your work and quite a visceral level. You know, I can imagine the crochet dish cloth and think about the idea of going into a flower shop or with small children to an ice cream store.
[00:15:39] You know, those are incredibly tangible, practical aspects that are pretty universal. You know, it’s not a, it’s not a hard sell – Oh, why is it nice to have a flower shop? It’s like, no, we all sort of have a grin on our face when we see nice flowers. So thank you for bringing us into that aspect of the practical advocacy that’s not just panels and speakers.
[00:16:00] Andrea James: Yeah, and if I could just add something to that because all of our buckets link together. The work we’re doing called the Free Her Campaign, which is the national campaign that started in the six New England states to close those women’s prisons, because those states are geographically proximate to each other, but they also have the lowest incarceration populations in the country.
[00:16:20] And so it’s doable. We can use these states as models. When you have 60 to 80 women, say in the state of Vermont, who are in a prison, it doesn’t make any sense. So we’ve developed the practice for that also. How do we do those individual assessments? They’re just dropping RFPs to build new women’s prisons all over the place.
[00:16:41] And we’re saying, hold on, particularly in these states with tiny populations of incarcerated women, let’s figure out how do we decarcerate first. How do we decarcerate first? So here in Massachusetts, as we were fighting against that prison, they used a particular woman who, I won’t disclose her name, but um, they said, well, she’s the reason why we have to build a new prison because there’s 50 women like her out of the 139 state sentenced women in Massachusetts, in the old, we have the oldest prison in the country here in Massachusetts for women. It was the first one. And they said, well the prison’s really bad and in poor condition, we need to build a new prison because women like so and so is never coming home.
[00:17:24] Well, guess what? We just brought her home. Right? We just brought her home. And so from first degree murder conviction with possibility of no parole, to getting that bumped down to what it should have been, that made her eligible for a parole sentence and then going to the parole hearing with an entire community that said give her back to us.
[00:17:49] And this woman who was literally serving a life of no parole sentence, who they were using as the reason that they have to build a new 50 million women’s prison is home. In a transitional home that a formally incarcerated woman built who used to be in that prison with her. When you hear these stories and you don’t know this, and we understand the work that we’re doing, we know that we can end incarceration of women and girls.
[00:18:19] It’s just a matter of resources. It’s a matter of the will of the state to end their violence against poor people, black people, poor women, you know, to stop and to pause and look at what we are saying, that you have had decades, hundreds of years, to operate a fully failed system in every regard. They call themselves corrections – fully failed from front door to back. The parole and probation systems – all failed carceral systems. Failed!
[00:18:59] And when are we going to try something new? And so with our meager budget at the National Council we’re doing a lot of this funding of creating what different looks like and supporting sisters like Stacy Bord in the New Beginnings reentry who, who needed help. Sometimes you’re getting paid to, to create this model, right? You have this vision and this dream based on your experience of the illness of addiction or something, as with Stacy’s, and her cycling in and out, in and out, for 30 years into the carceral system and saying: none of this works, nobody even looked at me and what my needs are. And I’m gonna build a place where women, we can get women out. She always says, Andrea, you get ’em out, I’ll keep ’em out. And, and we need, we need thousands of new beginning houses, you know, we need thousands of this.
[00:19:52] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So this is I suppose my last question to you. Because of how many wonderful things you’re doing, and there’s so much here to inspire people, to help people reimagine and think of what different could be, um, and not just accept this current system as, Okay, maybe we tweak that there or do this, like, hang on a second, can we not think bigger, really, um, think differently?
[00:20:16] And so a lot of the work that you are doing, you’re helping others to do, is community based and community led and from what you’ve explained, the rational for that, the reasoning that that’s so powerful is incredibly clear.
[00:20:30] But I do want to ask as my last question for the people listening to this who undoubtedly are going to be inspired, but who may not be themselves from these communities originally, particularly the people who might be in the same sort of packs as you were before this, as a defense lawyer, public defender, you know, human rights advocate.
[00:20:53] Do you have any final words of inspiration or advice to people working in these areas, wanting to work in these areas? How can they support these community based and community led initiatives, even if they might not have grown up in these places and already know these people?
[00:21:12] Andrea James: Well, yeah, and I think that we have to address the issue of fair. We have to address the issue of what the narrative about people who are entangled in the criminal system, what that image is that it invokes when we talk about these issues. The issue of violence comes up. What do we do with people who will cause harm, who have caused significant harm, who have taken another person’s life?
[00:21:34] Abolition is about experimenting, you know, thinking, talking to everybody. It includes talking to the people who have caused harm as part of the solution, which we don’t do. We throw people in prison and they’re gone and we ain’t gotta look at’em or see or talk to them ever again. That’s a huge waste of how do we get to something different.
[00:21:58] So we have to address all of those things. And I think we have to meet people where they are. We have to understand that we’re not all a monolith. We’re not all gonna agree that abolition is the way. There’s different segments to this: there’s prison reform, there’s criminal legal reform, there’s abolition, there’s all these buckets that people are working in. So first of all, you have to figure out who is this person and who are they and how are they entering into this work? And that was something that we had to learn as an organization that leads and is a part of a lot of coalitions that we have to create in order to get stuff done. We had to learn that you have to kind of do an ecosystem check in.
[00:22:35] You have to do it as an individual. You have to do it with yourself. Figure out where do I fit in? You have to ask yourself that question first. Like, honestly, where do I feel I fit into this work? What is comfortable for me? Don’t try and do something that’s way over here uncomfortable because that uncomfortability is gonna always be a blockade to you really learning and growing in this space.
[00:22:57] Read! Read things like “Becoming an Abolitionist” by Derecka Purnell, amazing book. I mean, she wasn’t an abolitionist. She was a law student. She went to Harvard, she had all these privileged experiences while at the same time coming from a family who was deeply, you know, from a community entangled in the criminal legal system. She had all of these, this alchemy of all of these experiences. She wrote a book about becoming abolitionist.
[00:23:22] Mariame Kaba, I cannot say enough. Mariame Kaba has been our mentor and Andrea Richie and they now are incredible scholars and researchers who are helping the entire world move and advance towards abolition. Read their books! Read anything they wrote. You can Google them. Mariame’s book “We Do This Till We Free Us”, read that book! That will help you.
[00:23:49] It talks about all of these questions. The first thing we get from people when we’re doing standouts, when we’re doing door knocking, when we’re talking to folks, people say, well what about the woman who kills her baby? You know, they always go to the most hurtful, painful instance.
[00:24:04] But we have to be able to let people ask those questions. We have to be able to, you know, guide people a little bit through these responses. Kathy Boudin, who was a great mentor and leader in our space, who did decades in prison as a result of that, her son, Chase Boudin, was the district attorney in San Francisco until they ganged up on a progressive DA and tried to dismantle all the work that he was doing. You know, Kathy, who went to prison, we led a lot of participatory research projects, talking to women who actually were prosecuted, sentenced, and incarcerated for committing murder, for committing violent transgressions against other people.
[00:24:47] And those are the women that are talking and thinking about what do you do with somebody who has just killed a person? And these are real questions. And if you match that also with how did it become, how did it get there? You lose all that richness when you only use prison as a place to incapacitate people and not do any of the other work.
[00:25:10] And even if people have to be incapacitated, and I learned this from Kathy, even if you have to remove somebody because they are just incapable at the time to stop causing harm or has caused a significant level of egregious harm to another human being, still the current prison system is not the way to do that.
[00:25:33] That only is going to continue the traumatization in the further harm. You’re not making that person whole and healed and healthy. So these are all the things that we have to grapple with when people wanna come into the space, or are motivated, or intrigued. Come on in! But we do a process where we do a six month fellowship for formerly incarcerated women who wanna come into this work because we’re not a monolith.
[00:26:04] We’ve had to learn that there has to be some training from slavery to mass incarceration. We live in a very racist country where racism is the underpinnings of everything and the bedrock of the policing system in the criminal legal system in this country. If you don’t know that and you’re coming in, it’s not enough to just be formerly incarcerated.
[00:26:25] If you’re just gonna be formerly incarcerated, but you’re not politicized, then stick to just telling your story. We need you to tell your story, cuz that’s helpful. But if you wanna jump into a different space to create change and policy making, you need to be politicized before you do that in some way.
[00:26:43] And begin your journey. We’re always student teachers. None of us are just teachers, right? We all have to be looking towards everybody, and there’s people coming into this space all the time that have brilliant analysis and thinking. And data is now a space formally incarcerated people are getting into to help us to understand there’s good technology, there’s carceral technology. You know, how do we break that up? Because now they’re creating open air prisons in our own communities because of technology with ankle shackles or electronic monitoring, whatever they wanna call it.
[00:27:20] So I would encourage people to learn, you know, and never feel like you can’t. I thrive off of going and listening. I go to every conference I can go to. I listen to every podcast I can listen to. I even listened to the ultra conservative one, the Cato one, because I wanna know. Some things, I’m like, yeah, that is true. But at some point we kinda go in different directions, but there are those places where we all agree. How do we make that happen more? Right?
[00:27:51] So I mean, I’ve always been huge on education. I grew up in a house that looked like a book museum because of my parents and, you know, I read everything and I think that is important. And not everybody can do that. So we have to always be also creating ways for people to learn without having to read a whole damn book. You know, how do we, how do we take that book and those lessons and put it into visuals and other things that people can adapt to.
[00:28:19] So, I mean, study struggle, I guess, is the best way. For me to say to people, if you’re not in that, and if you’re not listening to the people who are closest to the problem, who are most directly affected, then already you’re kind of, if you’re just globbing onto this group of academia or you’re meta professor and they’re doing some work, but you’re not engaging and listening and learning from the people who are most directly affected.
[00:28:48] And that’s where organizations come in, cuz you may not know or you might be afraid to come into the neighborhoods or whatever. Find a Families for Justice as Healing. We have a massive volunteer base called People not Prisons. That’s what we call our volunteer bases. These are mostly wealthier white folks who don’t have direct experience, but they care. Some just give money. We have enough of a variety of things that you don’t have to come into the neighborhood if you’re not comfortable with that. As a matter of fact, a lot of times we don’t really want you there because black folks who haven’t been organizing for themselves, young black people don’t need to see white people leading them in organizing.
[00:29:23] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Community led.
[00:29:24] Andrea James: Community led. There’s so much to show up and to do. You know, we make t-shirts. You can do a whole lot of stuff.
[00:29:33] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Amazing. And thank you for sharing that, for sharing your work, for the idea of the study struggle, the listening, and also the practical things about, you know, what we can, what you can Google to read and where you can go turn up to volunteer. It’s such a wonderful, I mean, a stunning amount of work that you’re doing and just an incredibly important effort really. So just thank you so much for sharing your precious, precious time with us!
[00:30:00] Andrea James: Yeah! If you could go to our national council website at nationalcouncil.us, that’s, council like a city council, c o u n c i l, nationalcouncil.us, and then check out our think tank website at freeherinstitute.com and buy a t-shirt, please!
[00:30:21] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Amazing! Well, thank you so much for your time, for your work, and we look forward so much to following every triumph and every project in the future.
[00:30:31] Andrea James: I appreciate you caring about this issue and supporting us. Thank you!
[00:30:34] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Thank you to Andrea for speaking with us on these episodes. Stay tuned for future Just Access interviews!