“Clemency works, and it is racial justice.”
In 2010, Andrea James, at the time a criminal defense and real estate conveyance attorney, was convicted of wire fraud and sentenced to two years in federal prison due to an infraction in her real estate practice amid the 2008 housing crisis. When James walked into prison, the scene that greeted her was haunting:
“I walked into a prison that was crammed full – crammed full – of predominantly Black women who were serving mostly mandatory minimum drug sentences, meaning they were all there for at least five to 10 years,” she told KCM.
While in prison, James and other women began talking about ways they could call attention to the plight of incarcerated women and their communities. James was released in 2012, and in 2017, she helped found the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, an organization that looks to abolish the incarceration of women in lieu of a community justice model.
Recently, the organization has advocated for the rights of prisoners during the Covid-19 pandemic and has urged the Biden administration to take action on criminal justice reform.
KCM talked to James about her experience with the Council and its current efforts…
KCM: Tell us about your experience walking into federal prison.
Andrea James: There’s no way to describe it. My entire life I had always worked, in some aspect, in the criminal legal system, all the way up to being a criminal defense attorney. I’m very proud of my neighborhood, Roxbury, Massachusetts. It’s an alchemy of African American people who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, and everything in between, but also we are the most incarcerated and one of the poorest communities in the Commonwealth. It’s important to know that I walked into courtrooms as a defense attorney on a daily basis and defended people in Massachusetts court, and grew up in this really beautiful, amazing African American family that made a point of staying in the neighborhood all through the drug war, the crack era, all these things that decimated our community. My family made a point of fighting on behalf of people and better alternatives to police, prosecutors, and prisons. That’s what I was raised in. I had the privilege of coming from a family that had means and made sure that we all got the best education that they could give us. I was surrounded by other families that didn’t have the same level of financial means or education, and most of my closest friends in my community are still cycling in and out of incarceration.
I assure you when I walked into that prison with all of this life experience, I was stunned at what I encountered. I remember sitting on my bunk and looking over the sea of women that were in the same dorm that I was in. We were literally head-to-toe, head-to-toe, head-to-toe on these bunks, and I remember saying, “My God, this must be similar to what it was like on a slave ship.” It’s just the first imagery that came to my mind. With all of my professional and personal experience, I was not prepared for it until I had the experience of being incarcerated.
Can you tell me about the origins of the Council?
Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow had just come out, and it increased the dialogue and awareness among a lot of people who weren’t paying attention to the issue of mass incarceration before that. Even though we were hearing about the movement to end mass incarceration, no formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, or directly affected people were using their voices to tell this story, to shape the narrative. It was all academia, researchers, large national nonprofits. And so we decided, sitting in that prison yard in 2010, that we were going to use our voices and our experiences to create that change and to inject into the conversation what was actually necessary to be understood: Women were becoming the fastest growing incarcerated population in the country and 80% of us were mothers. We also wanted to tell the story of what was happening to our children while we were sitting in prison. And so we did.
Why do you think women have not been a focus of the conversation around mass incarceration?
I think that women have always taken the backseat in that issue because of the numbers: We’re 10% of the incarcerated population. Naturally, people might focus on men, but when you start thinking about the impact of the incarceration of women, who are already the primary caretakers of their children prior to incarceration, it is exponentially higher than for men. 80% of incarcerated women are mothers and most have custody of their children and were the primary caretakers of their children prior to incarceration. Women have always been in the background, but they have been the holders of the Black community since slavery.
Can you talk about the incarceration of girls and what that looks like?
First of all, women who are incarcerated were girls, and most of the reasons that landed them as women on prison bunks were things that happened to them and caused untreated trauma in their lives as girls. Upwards of 80% of women who are incarcerated were victims of sexual violence, partnership violence, interpersonal violence within their households as children, domestic violence and so forth. That is still happening to girls in communities that are most directly affected by incarceration because we decide, in this country, to utilize prisons to address issues. What we know for sure is that prison is never going to be a place for a woman or a girl to heal or advance her life.
Nobody really thinks about the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which literally strips parents of custody of their children if they’re absent from their children’s lives for more than two years on average. That is devastating. It has completely separated Black mothers at a very disproportionate rate from their Black daughters and Black sons. Many people don’t even think about the level of familial and the level of economic destruction that this current criminal legal system has had on Black and Brown communities. And so trauma, the adulting of Black girls, the school to prison pipeline, the child welfare system – all of those things put together affect girls in a significant way. If we don’t begin to build community-led alternatives to our current system that create accountability for our children in our neighborhoods, we’re going to just continue to build prisons and put these children in them.
Can you tell me a little bit about why clemency works and how it works?
We started our clemency work under the Obama administration. We were very fortunate that Valerie Jarrett and Karol Mason in the Obama administration centered the issue of women. President Obama did commute the sentences of over 1,000 people, about 10% of them women. We took a step back during the last presidential administration and we decided to use the last four years to reach out to states and to people in states to raise awareness that governors have clemency power as well. We launched the ClemencyWorks campaign and started to educate and do symposiums. What we say is, clemency is racial justice. Clemency works, and it is racial justice.
What about your most recent campaign to get clemency for 100 women in 100 days?
We launched our campaign to encourage and to ask, to implore, to plead with President Biden to grant clemency to these women in his first 100 days in office. He knows the work, he knows who we are, he knows the work that we did under President Obama. He knows the importance of clemency and he knows the harm that has been caused unintentionally by the 1994 Crime Act, and the work that needs to be done to correct the unintentional fallout that disproportionately affected Black communities in this country. We’re saying, ‘We voted for you. We rallied our troops around you.’ We came out and stood and held signs and said, ‘As formerly incarcerated people, we believe that he is earnest in saying that the criminal legal system needs to be radically transformed and that there are better ways that we can approach things.’ We can start by recognizing that clemency is racial justice and let these women come home. Bring these hundred women home and let’s move on from there.
Have you seen a positive response from Biden’s administration?
We were very fortunate to actually have conversations directly with the White House team on clemency, but honestly, we’re groping around in the dark out here. I know they’re hearing us, I know they’re seeing the work that we’re doing, I know they’re hearing our calls for help and for consideration just for anybody. But we have no clue, really, where things are. It’s very frustrating.
Are you still optimistic?
We’re never going to give up. We’re optimistic every day. We go to sleep and we wake up with renewed joy and energy in our hearts. And the difference is that we’re women who have lived on a prison bunk. Those of us who have the opportunity to come out, to get back home, to come back to our children and our families and our communities – we have an obligation. We know what it’s like and we know the pain that these women are going through, and if not for us, nobody will be the voice for women who deserve a second chance. Everybody, at least once in their life, deserves a second chance. So we’re never going to be deterred.
We’re all they have, and we know what it’s like, at 3:00 in the morning, to hear that woman on that bunk, sobbing and trying to stifle the sound of her inconsolable tears because she can’t breathe another minute because she’s away from her children. That’s an experience you will never, ever forget. So this is what we do.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Written and reported by Ciara Hopkinson.