(Update: On June 17 the Open Society Foundations announced Andrea James as one of the 15 individuals selected as members of the 2015 class of Soros Justice Fellows. Read more.)
Andrea James came out of prison determined to make a positive change in the criminal justice system, particularly for women who are justice-involved.
James is noted for crisscrossing the country in an effort to unite formerly incarcerated women and the organizations that were created to help them to become proactive on criminal justice issues that affect, or have affected, their lives.
Last June 21 James arranged the Free Her Rally in the nation’s Capital to bring attention to the over-incarceration of women in America, and questioned why tax payers are footing the bill to keep non-violent, sick and elderly women locked up when they pose no threat to society. This August she arranged for the Free Her Justice Advocacy Conference to be held at Harvard Law School. The conference will be an historic gathering of formerly incarcerated women and their supporters to discuss what needs to be done to keep women out of prison, protect the ones who are incarcerated, and to see that those who are released have the services they need in place while trying to reintegrated successfully. (Full disclosure: Beatrice Codianni, Managing Editor of Reentry Central was a speaker at the Free Her Rally, and will be a panelist at the Free Her Justice Conference. Codianni is also co-founder with James of Real Women Real Voices, an organization of formerly incarcerated women who advocate for criminal justice reform for justice involved women).
On June 12, RH Reality Check published an article by Victoria Law on women who were justice- involved and had difficulty preventing their children from being adopted under the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) which provides for children to be taken away from incarcerated mothers and fathers if they are in foster care for 15 out of 22 months. Law also wrote about how James spearheaded the fight to provide alternatives to incarceration for primary caregivers of dependent children in Massachusetts and is encouraging women in other states to do the same (see link to complete article below.)
Law describes how James brought together women from all over Massachusetts, most who had no political experience, to help educate legislators about the collateral consequences of incarcerating a parent when an alternative to incarceration program would be less costly and more sensible.
“Now, in Massachusetts, formerly incarcerated women are taking a different approach—pushing to keep primary caregivers out of prison altogether. Andrea James is the director of Families for Justice as Healing, an organization of currently and formerly incarcerated women. She is also a mother who spent 18 months at the Federal Correction Institution, Danbury—the institution now made famous by Orange Is the New Black—and the force behind HB 1382, which would provide community-based alternatives to incarceration for primary caregivers. In Massachusetts, 66 to 75 percent of women behind bars are mothers to dependent children; most of these are single parents.
HB 1382, sponsored by Massachusetts House Rep. Russell E. Holmes (D-Boston), pushes the courts to determine whether a person who has been convicted of a non-violent offense is a primary caregiver of a child under 18. If that person is, the court will sentence that person to an alternative to incarceration “based on community rehabilitation, with a focus on parent-child unity and support.”
The bill, James said, grew out of a number of kitchen-table conversations with formerly incarcerated women and their families across the state. Recognizing that many people lack transportation or the money to access it, James and other members will visit formerly incarcerated women and their families in their homes.
“Usually, we show up and there are two or three other mothers and grandmothers at the table,” she explained in an interview with RH Reality Check. There, they talk about the effects of mass incarceration—and how to challenge them. James said that she and Families for Justice as Healing also reach out to women who don’t have homes, conducting workshops at day shelters and other areas where women who have been incarcerated end up after leaving jail or prison.
As of May 4, 1,277 women were behind bars in Massachusetts. Had courts been pushed to consider those individuals’ roles in caring for children, that number would likely be much lower. A 2008 study found that only 15 percent of women in the state’s jails and sole women’s prison were incarcerated for actions involving violence. If the same percentage holds true today, hundreds of mothers could be diverted from prison to community alternatives—and get to maintain custody of their children.
“It’s a really critical element that’s not being asked at sentencing—is this person responsible for their children? What is their absence going to mean for those children?” said James.
HB 1382 is currently before the Judiciary Committee of the Massachusetts state legislature. As they await a hearing date, the women helping to push it are preparing their testimonies. Some have lost custody of their children because of their incarceration. Some have lost their parents to addiction and incarceration. Some have been on both ends: James told the story of a woman named Diana McGuire, who was placed in foster care because of her own parents’ addiction and incarceration. As an adult, she has been in and out of prison for more than 17 years, losing custody of her own children in the process. Now, says James, McGuire is determined to make a difference for other families facing similar situations and is preparing to share her own painful experiences to illustrate the bill’s importance.
For her and other women, this will be their first time before the legislature. They’ve been meeting to practice what to say during the three minutes each speaker is allotted—and they’ve supported one another as they share their experiences over and over again. “There’s not a dry eye in the room by the end of it,” describes James. “But there’s also a lot of hugging, there’s a lot of encouraging.”
Working on the bill isn’t only about enabling parents to stay out of prison, giving their children stable support systems, and avoiding possible termination of custody. It’s also about trying to change public perceptions of women who are incarcerated, says James.
James noted that poverty, under-education, racism and, in many cases, addiction are factors in women’s incarceration. While the bill does not address all of these underlying issues, the discussion surrounding HB 1382 brings the topics into conversations about criminal justice and parenting. “We’re trying to shift the paradigm of the ‘bad mother.’ Even women who are struggling with addiction are doing their best to parent,” James said.
Recognizing the destruction that imprisonment wreaks on individuals, families, and communities, James explained, “Our goal is to reduce the incarceration of women. So everything we do starts from there and we try to figure out how to accomplish that.”
Read Victoria Law’s complete article here.