Women Rally for Prison and Sentencing Reform June 21st

Posted June 18, 2014

MP3 Interview with Andrea James, co-founder and director of Families for Justice as Healing, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


On June 21, thousands of people are expected at a rally in Washington, D.C. that will highlight the situation of women in prison and call for an end to the war on drugs. The rally called, "Free Her," points to the faster rate of incarceration of women over men, although men still make up the vast majority of the 2.5 million Americans in prison. Most of those women were prosecuted for non-violent drug offenses, taking them away from their children, or in some cases, forcing women to give birth while in prison. For other women, decades-long prison sentences mean they can never have children. More women than men have suffered either physical or sexual abuse before being jailed, and they suffer higher rates of mental illness while incarcerated, where very few receive adequate mental health care.

Andrea James is a former lawyer who served two years at Danbury federal prison for wire fraud. She left behind a 12-year-old daughter and a 5-month-old son. While at Danbury, she and a few other women inmates founded a group called Families for Justice as Healing and she now serves at the director of the Boston-based group, which is the prime organizer of the Free Her rally.

The protest is being organized by formerly incarcerated women on behalf of the women they left behind. James says the demands of the rally include an end to voter disenfranchisement for people with felony convictions, asking President Obama to commute the sentences of women and men in the federal system who have applied for such status – and calling for support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, legislation which would reduce the number of mandatory minimum sentences and take another step toward equalizing penalties for crack and powder cocaine. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Andrea James about the origins of her group, Families for Justice as Healing, and the goals of their June 21st Free Her Rally in Washington, D.C.

ANDREA JAMES: We started our organization in the prison yard in Danbury and we started it mostly to raise awareness of the increase in incarceration of women in this country. Women are the fastest growing population of incarcerated people right now – we've had a 400 percent increase in the incarceration of women in the U.S., and 800 percent for African American women, which is extraordinarily alarming, and it's mostly related to the war on drugs. We started the organization as incarcerated women to use our voices to really paint a more accurate portrait of who is incarcerated. Who are these women and what kind of impact their incarceration has on their children and on the communities they come from.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You said a Native American woman who was also incarcerated at Danbury gave you a book when she left that really made an impression on you.

ANDREA JAMES: The title of the book was "Justice as Healing," and it was written by a prosecutor in Canada, who talked about the native way of addressing issues that we refer to as criminal justice issues here in the U.S. And the way they address those issues was to start with the person. Start with who that person is, who they belong to, where they came from, who their family is, what tribe they came out of, and really putting the offense that the person committed off the table and just begin to work with the person, reminding them about the value and how important they are and the impact they've had on the lives of other people, and really beginning a process of justice as healing.

Any time when you're talking about this population, about incarcerated people, around people they have warehoused in prison in relation to a drug war where many people are suffering from chronic poverty, where people are suffering from addiction – and in terms of women, when we look at the statistics, women who have had lifetime histories of domestic abuse or sexual violence, chronic poverty, substance abuse, then healing is what we need to do to help people. Prison doesn't provide for that in any way. It's not a place to expect people to begin to heal. Prisons are extraordinarily dehumanizing places. They are places that create complete exhaustion in the person who is there, and particularly among the population of women who are mostly nonviolent offenders who are warehoused, underprotected, in our country, and warehoused in prison, many of them for very minor offenses related to drugs. We need to think about healing people as opposed to just warehousing them in prison.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Andrea James, What are your demands for the rally on June 21?

ANDREA JAMES: The three reasons we're convening on the Washington Mall on the 21st, the first one as I've mentioned, is to raise awareness of the increase in incarceration of women in the U.S., the impact on our children, and our communities. The second reason is to encourage President Obama to commute the sentences of women serving non-violent drug offenses in the federal system, which is something that the Justice Dept on April 23 finally came out and said they are willing to do, not just for women, but for people in the federal system serving nonviolent drug sentences and other sentences. The president will be ramping up the commutation effort to give consideration to people who fit into six criteria. Now, one of those criteria is particularly harsh from our perspective, and that is that you have to have already served ten years, because for two years now our organization has been pushing and advocating for commutation for women in the federal system who have four years in, five years in, six years in, seven years in, eight years in. So we're coming and we're supporting those women still, but we're coming as women to say, you know, ten years is still too long. Ten years is a really long time, and we shouldn't now put a mandatory minimum on commutation consideration where one didn't exist before. The third reason why we're coming is a two-part reason in terms of legislation that's pending right now. One is the Smarter Sentencing Act. We're coming to raise support and to ask the folks who show up and folks in general across the country to call in, call your congresspeople in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act. And in addition to that, the Barber amendment. The Barber amendment will restore federal parole; we lost federal parole when they introduced mandatory minimums to the federal system, and we also lost federal good time when they introduced mandatory minimums. So those are two things we really need to push forward. And we're coming to raise awareness of those and to get people across the country to call in in support of those things.

For more information on Families for Justice as Healing and the June 21st Free Her protest rally, justiceashealing.org.

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